The Pilgrim and the Nomad: about the non-linear plot

C. Jordan

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Why that title? Because the pilgrim has a fixed destination, and the nomad doesn't. A pilgrim (such as Xuan Tong) is going somewhere (India) and as a consequence he travels through places. A nomad travels through places because that is his life, and as a consequence he arrives at a destination.

I said that above in order to say that I think Ayn Rand was very much a pilgrim, in the sense that I mean. That shows in her approach towards writing. It even shows in her writing: I refer to the train-ride of Atlas Shrugged, where Dagny praised the straight line as the symbol of progress.

With that in mind, I thought I'd write something of the non-linear plot, by which I mean a story that is not told in normal chronological order. And before I begin, I'll address some possible rebuttals. "That sounds like you're about to defend plotless trash, or the stuff that's written spontaneously." Actually, not at all. Just the opposite.

The only way anyone can write a story out of order (and make it a good story) is if the writer knows how the story goes in chronological order. Which presupposes that the writer knows the basic plot of the story. In other words, the writer could have told the story in the normal order.

And that is the difference between a non-linear plot and plotless trash. Of course 'non-linear plot' is my own coinage, and I chose it to underscore that there is a plot, even though the plot is by definition not immediately clear to the reader.

Another disclaimer: I'm not here to write about my writing; instead I will mention a pair of those writers who have chosen to tell a story out of order, and what I think was accomplished by doing it that way. The only thing I'll tell you based on my own writing is that non-linear plots are HARDER than Ayn Rand's preferred approach.

One approach is to begin right before the climax; then swing back to the past to when the story began. This is the approach Umberto Eco used in Foucault's Pendulum. We have a man [Casaubon, the narrator] hiding in a museum and worry about Mediæval conspiracy theories. He thinks back to his friend Jacopo disappearing, and then back further to when he and his friends began to make up a fake conspiracy-theory; and then back to when he first met those friends.

That may sound convoluted, but in fact it made sense in the context of reading the book. However, Foucault's Pendulum has a plot, and a very tightly constructed one at that. But why did Eco not tell it in normal order? Why didn't we start with Casaubon meeting his friends, then go to their exposure to conspiracy theories, then in proper chronological order get to those events that Eco wrote first? I'll answer that I did a thought-exercise, imagining just that, and it didn't flow as well.

Maybe the plot I described sounded nutty; in my opinion it was exactly the right one for a book such as Foucault's Pendulum.

Other examples come to mind. My favourite book by Chinua Achèbe is Anthills of the Savannah, and again that is told out of order. The book literally begins in the middle of a furious argument, between the dictator of a West African country and an old friend. Only in the course of the first chapter are we given some idea of what the argument is about. Only later, and still later, do we get clues as to what the argument had been about from the beginning.

As to why Achèbe chose to tell the story out of order, I did the same thought-experiment. If told in order, we would first have His Excellency the President would have first had his referendum. Then Abazon province would have voted no. Then he would have taken revenge. Then later we would have had the same argument.

Told that way, there would have been no suspence in His Excellency saying: "I will not go to Abazon. The matter is settled. Kabisa!" That would have been precisely what we'd expected all along. But to hear that statement from the start, not knowing any of the background, the reader is drawn in to the story. A good reader will be asking: what is the problem with Abazon? and, why are these men quarrelling so over it? Only in this way could Achèbe have told that particular story.

What I said about Eco is also true about Achèbe. That he told the story out of order, in more way than just that, he nonetheless told a story that had order. If not, I never would have bothered to read and re-read Anthills and I certainly would not be praising it as a non-linear plot.

One final technique I have noticed is when V.S. Naipaul "walks around" a subject. The idea of "walking around" is entirely my interpretation. What Naipaul will do, when he's about to tell us something complicated, is he will walk us around the idea, once, and tell us what it is. Then he will lead us around again, and show us what we didn't see the first time. Then a third time, when we see even more than we saw the time before.

When I noticed this technique (and I've never heard of it in any literature class) what came to mind first was walking around a sculpture. But it also reminds me of learning history. Take Chinese history: first you learn about the history as a whole, and you only learn some of the main events of each dynasty. Later you might study the Tang Dynasty, and learn more than you could have learned the first time. After that, if you want to go further, you study individual reigns, notably Tai Zong or Wu Ze Tian, and then you can absorb all the details.

And on drawing this analogy, it was clear to me why Naipaul chose this approach. (I don't know whether he is aware of using it.) Chinese history, for example, is too complex. One cannot absorb all the information on all the dynasties going back to 2200 BC at once. Therefore, "walking around" a subject instead of just going through on a straight chronological line sometimes makes more sense.

And at some point, I should stop writing this.

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