Are there novels like Raymond Carver's short stories?
March 8, 2005 1:05 AM   Subscribe

I love Raymond Carver's short stories because they're complete and perfect without much happening in them, in terms of action and plot development. What I'd like to find is some novels that are similarly "plotless"? Do they exist?

There are Carver stories which are so good you HAVE to finish them, even though all that happens is someone goes to bingo, sees someone else there, goes home, feels sad and goes to bed. I'm looking for novels where the prime reason you keep on reading isn't to see "what happens" but because you want to spend more time with the characters or the writing itself; ideally books where very little "happens" at all...
posted by bunglin jones to Writing & Language (38 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust would be the ultimate example of what you're looking for (six volumes totalling a couple of thousand pages).
posted by CKZ at 1:29 AM on March 8, 2005

The novels of Bret Easton Ellis generally get described as 'plotless,' but there's a literary critic by the name of Elizabeth Young who disagrees.

But however you slice it, Ellis is about as far as you can get from Carver without wandering outside the bounds of American lit. Ellis is postmodern and writes about the rich and self-destructive. Carver, so I'm told, is a naturalist who writes about ordinary people.
posted by Clay201 at 1:31 AM on March 8, 2005

posted by Wolof at 3:48 AM on March 8, 2005

try the new york trilogy by paul auster. three detective stories set in, surprisingly enough, new york.
posted by andrew cooke at 4:21 AM on March 8, 2005

Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse centers on the minds of the characters, slipping into stream-of-consciousness. But the feel is more avant-garde and possibly less natural than Carver.

I'd actually compare his style to John Steinbeck, especially Cannery Row. Steinbeck focuses on characters in the down-to-earth (i.e. readable) style of Carver, but he explores the character's thoughts and feelings in the down-to-earth style.

The question is tricky because, as C.S. Lewis noted, plot is an important element of good writing, and for years it was neglected in academic study. The authors who remind me of Carver are actually tight plotters, but they're just as gripping for style. On the other hand, restricting the answers to plot-light books grants the necessary focus to your search for literature.

In short, try Cannery Row.
posted by NickDouglas at 4:54 AM on March 8, 2005

I'm sorry this isn't a suggestion for a novel, but have you read many of Hemingway's short stories? This one is absolutely beautiful and there's very little to the plot. Actually, although I haven't read any of them in years, his novels often have very simple plots, and you would surely like his writing style if you like Carver's.

I'm looking forward to the replies here. I too think Carver's stories and style are admirable.
posted by katie at 6:05 AM on March 8, 2005

oh. it's just struck me that you could argue the new york trilogy are short stories rather than a single novel (i think of them as one book, but they're pretty much distinct).
posted by andrew cooke at 6:14 AM on March 8, 2005

The year of the death of Ricardo Reis,

by Jose Saramago might interest you. Read up on the poet Fernando Pessoa before you read it.
posted by sic at 7:20 AM on March 8, 2005

If you're up for it, give David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest a shot. 1200+ pages and not a plot to be found. However, he is quite different from Carver. Also, if you're into the short story thing try Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son and Charles D'Ambrosio's The Point and Other Stories.
posted by jodic at 7:22 AM on March 8, 2005

I think John Barth described this type of writing as "one man's peanut butter sandwich".

Paul Auster is a good suggestion (he has strong plots, but really calm writing and lots of long thought passages). Also try: Richard Brautigan, Donald Barthelme, and my favorite contemporary writer, Nicholson Baker.
posted by Miko at 7:31 AM on March 8, 2005

Oh! I just thought of another one, one that just came out, Dean Bakopoulos' Please Don't Come Back from the Moon.
posted by jodic at 7:37 AM on March 8, 2005

Thom Jones, The Pugilist At Rest.

Novels by Richard Russo.

Emperor or The Air, by Ethan Canin, is a collection of very Carveresque short stories, but a much more sentimental collection, with characters who are perhaps less hard-edged.
posted by docpops at 7:49 AM on March 8, 2005

Don't forget the New Novel.

Proust? Are you joking? Have you actually read Proust? Lots of stuff happens; the fact that the focus is on Marcel's memory of it and reactions to it doesn't mean it's plotless. Sheesh.
posted by languagehat at 7:50 AM on March 8, 2005

Haruki Murakami, who was influenced by Carver, and I believe has translated some of Carver's works into Japanese.

Henry James. Nothing happens in his books.
posted by adamrice at 7:54 AM on March 8, 2005

If you haven't read James Joyce's The Dead, you should check it out. It's an excellent work, and one that I think is very close to what you describe.

I second Hemingway. The Sun Also Rises in particular.
posted by rafter at 8:07 AM on March 8, 2005

They're not quite as plotless as Raymond Carver, but Flannery O'Connor's only two novels- Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away- are definitely more about character and "little moments" than about the overall story. (Especially the latter title.) Many of the chapters in Violent started off as short stories, in fact.

Flannery O'Connor is one of my favorite authors, because her stories are both grim AND funny.
posted by BoringPostcards at 8:13 AM on March 8, 2005

I second Thom Jones.
posted by Mo Nickels at 8:14 AM on March 8, 2005

grim AND funny
i just re-read The Restraint of Beasts which fits that description and has minimal plot.
posted by andrew cooke at 8:29 AM on March 8, 2005

Hardly anything happens in Larry Niven's Wait It Out, but I doubt hard SF set on Pluto is what you're after.
posted by squidlarkin at 8:38 AM on March 8, 2005

Nothing really happens in Cormac McCarthy novels, either. He descrbies stuff, though. And then describes the descriptions. And guys ride horses and shoot people. They are pretty awesome, though. I am going through Blood Meridian right now and enjoying it.
posted by xmutex at 8:43 AM on March 8, 2005

Larry Brown is similar in some ways to Carver. Maybe a little bit more plot, but still the aimless ennui that threatens to overcome everything else. And I think the author most similar to Carver in subject matter, certainly stylistically, is Harry Crews. Anyone who appreciates what you do about Carver will, I am sure, also enjoy Crews.
posted by luriete at 8:51 AM on March 8, 2005

I third Thom Jones.
posted by greasy_skillet at 9:03 AM on March 8, 2005

I don't think "plotless" is the right word for Carver. Some of his stories — I'm thinking of "A Small Good Thing" or "Cathedral," for instance — are really tightly plotted. It's just that the plots are psychological. Instead of trying to marry each other or blow each other up, the characters are trying to learn or forget or change their minds about each other.

I'd be curious what you thought of Somerset Maugham or Evelyn Waugh. They both wrote the same sort of character-driven psychological plots, only about the British upper classes instead of the American working class.

I second Woolf, too. And while you're at it, try Michael Cunningham's The Hours. Almost nothing "happens," and the characters are impeccably written.

[Hey, jodic — Dean Bakopoulos used to be my writing teacher! And for what it's worth, he was a real Carver nut, so I guess you're on to something...]
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:20 AM on March 8, 2005

Cannery Row, yes, definitely. My favorite Steinbeck, until I read East of Eden, but they are in different categories so they are both my favorite Steinbeck.

I also agree with Woolf - I particularly enjoyed Orlando.

I think things happen in Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey but I put off finishing the last ten pages for weeks because I didn't want to leave Oscar & Lucinda, I loved them both so much.
posted by librarina at 9:36 AM on March 8, 2005

I third Hemingway. I believe the two have been compared countless times.
posted by xammerboy at 9:58 AM on March 8, 2005

I'd vote for the other Barthelme brother- Frederick. His Law of Averages stuck with me because nothing much happens yet the stories feel complete.
posted by rodz at 10:21 AM on March 8, 2005

I give you Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities. All the action in the novel takes place over the span of only a few days, and volume one alone is over 1000 pages long.
posted by gigawhat? at 10:37 AM on March 8, 2005

Whenever i revisit of Carver's work, i'm reminded more of its quietness than its plotlessness. When i think about that quiet i think of Alice Munro, William Kittredge, maybe Charles Baxter. Russo, Chekov and Hemingway, mentioned above, are good starts too.
posted by verysleeping at 10:53 AM on March 8, 2005

I'll heartily second Man Without Qualities. I have a hunch I'll be spending whole swaths of my life reading it, which is perfectly fine by me.

If you're interested in drama, there's always Waiting for Godot, in which "nothing happens. Twice." Besides his plays, there's lots of nothing-y goodness in Beckett's novels, as well.
posted by scody at 11:02 AM on March 8, 2005

Oh, and rafter is spot-on regarding Joyce's "The Dead" -- it's just exquisite. The last three paragraphs make me weep, every single time. The rest of Dubliners is pretty wonderful, as well.
posted by scody at 11:05 AM on March 8, 2005

Cormac McCarthy ? plotless. "Nothing really happens"? Bah! Ever read All the Pretty Horses or Child of God or Outer Dark? Plot-packed! Take Outer Dark, for example. A brother and a sister have a child together; the brother abandons it in the woods; the sister goes on a journey trying to track it down; meanwhile, three nutjobs terrorize the countryside. Look, a plot. His emphasis might not be ONLY on plot, but he's not plotless.
posted by goatdog at 1:27 PM on March 8, 2005

Darn it, that was supposed to be "Cormac McCarthy ≠ plotless."
posted by goatdog at 1:30 PM on March 8, 2005

I read and studied Carver's collection "Short Cuts" in my final year of highschool. Changed my life.

Uh, yeah. Offtopic.
posted by Thoth at 2:13 PM on March 8, 2005

Best answer: I must second the recommendation of Nicholson Baker. In his book, The Mezzanine, a man rides the escalator up to his office after lunch. That is all. 100 pages of pure delight. In A Box of Matches, a man makes a fire each morning and thinks. That is all. 178 pages. I can't get enough. From page 1 of A Box of Matches:

"Good morning, it's January and it's 4:17 a.m., and I'm going to sit here in the dark. I'm in the living room in my blue bathrobe, with an armchair pulled up to the fireplace. There isn't much in the way of open flame at the moment because the underlayer of balled-up newspaper and paper-towel tubes has burned down and the wood hasn't fully caught yet. So what I'm looking at is an orangey ember-cavern that resemnbles a monster's sloppy mouth, filled with half-chewed, glowing bits of fire-meat."
posted by heatherann at 4:06 PM on March 8, 2005 [1 favorite]

Different medium, but maybe check out the Optic Nerve comic book series. Beautiful vignettes.
posted by Dante5Inferno at 5:00 PM on March 8, 2005

Response by poster: Hey, thanks all. Give me, say, six months to wade through some of these suggestions and I'll come back and try to pick out the best answers.
posted by bunglin jones at 2:03 AM on March 9, 2005

posted by gleuschk at 7:45 AM on March 26, 2005

Oops. I meant, Robbe-Grillet.
posted by gleuschk at 7:46 AM on March 26, 2005

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