My daughter and I have been reading Moby Dick aloud, taking turns. I got tired of simply hearing about this classic of American literature for much of my life, and since summer allows me to breathe occasionally, I decided to take the plunge. It has been a ton of fun so far. I like short chapters in a fat book — they are particularly conducive to reading aloud. I like the protagonist. But one of the things I like most about the book is that it is in no hurry to get to the plot. It lingers, it wanders, it goes off into fascinating detail. I can’t imagine that all the loving attention it pays to absolutely everything somehow justifies itself in Relevance to the Plot or the Story Arc, either directly or metaphorically. I find that I like this mad extravagance: detail for detail’s sake. It goes against what one is told by writing gurus: that everything in your story must be Relevant.
I wonder if that makes more sense in a short story, where one is restricted by word count and so perhaps every word has to count. Epics such as the Ramayana, and even more so, the Mahabharata, are filled with fascinating excursions and delvings that explorations that aren’t necessarily vital to the ‘main arc’ of the story. While they certainly flesh out the world of the story, they are clearly there for their own sake.
Similarly, reading Moby Dick, I find that its notorious ramblings and expositions are oddly pleasing. They might slow the action, but I like taking the time to stare at a painting on a wall through the eyes of Ishmael. I like the fact that at any moment in the story, that moment is the most important thing. The person, the painting, the dining room of that time and place is what there is. There is an almost Zen-like quality to this kind of writing.
Life is like that too — full of objects and people and occurrences that have no relevance to the main plot, because, guess what, there is no main plot. We choose to draw out this thread or that from the tapestry, giving us the illusion of a sequence of characters and events and meaning, but it is only one thread in the tangle. Art need not be compelled to imitate life — but let there be some works at least that burrow into the tangle and mix up the threads for the joy of it.
I’m working on a short story now that is mostly a series of ramblings, and I’d like to see if I can, in a small, modest and likely inadequate way, imitate what the fat, epic-like tomes do. Throw in lots of irrelevant detail, rejoice in it, and see what happens. Hopefully the reader will get a story where it is his/her choice to pull out this thread or that one, and play with it as a kitten might play with a ball of wool and a half-knitted sweater.