by cheri sabraw
Can a great novel be without conflict? Without an antagonist? Without growing tension? Will a reader take the hands of a contented narrator and accommodating likable characters for 100 pages? Will pleasant conversation enjoyed on a warm lazy afternoon, cold lemonade garnished with a sprig of spearmint, and a passionate old-fashioned kiss under an oak tree (on a soft blanket, of course) be enough?
I’ve been thinking about this possibility (or lack thereof) since finishing Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants.
Dominated by one brutish antagonist, August, the story of a Depression-era traveling circus and its menagerie of hard-scrabble characters, moves along predictably, like the vicissitudes of a roiling stock market.
In Water for Elephants, Gruen builds tension and fertilizes it with an erotic sex scene, animal cruelty, a lonely dwarf, an abused woman (the star of the show), and the gradual undoing of August and the owner of the greatest show on earth, Uncle Al.
A side-show itself, the novel progresses toward a predictable end:the lovable and personified Rosie the Elephant kills her tormentor, August. Whew. At last.
I almost put this book down for good when Rosie, chained in her quarters, finds herself the recipient of lashes and bull hooks, inflicted by August, a manic-depressive. As I have grown older, I have less tolerance or perhaps capacity for tension anywhere–in the novels I read, the movies I see, the people I know, the circumstances that fly in my face like a gritty New Mexican sandstorm.
Why am I reading this, I thought?
And so, I now wonder about a story in which the reader enjoys himself–fresh love, fragrant roses, sushi, a walk down a starched city street, and stimulating conversation.
I wonder about a story in which the reader enjoys herself–a blazing sky, hope, buttery Chardonnay, real wood furniture, pink tulips, and Impressionistic art.
Shall I write the first chapter and see what you think?
Or, is this a naive notion?
I know you will disabuse me of my innocence.