I just read and reviewed Green Girl, by Kate Zambreno. See it here.
A green girl is a young, naïve, unformed girl, as Ophelia was described in Hamlet. Zambreno’s book describes such an unformed person in novel-length detail. But why? I use this book as an example of a novel that tells no story.
If I described a spotted river rock in great detail over 250 pages, would that be a novel? Let’s say I mixed detailed observations with my impressions and descriptions of the rock’s behavior as it tumbled with the current. Is that a novel? To describe something is not to tell a story about it.
I believe a novel is, or should be, a kind of storytelling, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and there must be some point to it. The “point” can be to educate or entertain, but ultimately, a novel is supposed to comment on the human condition in some way, as all good stories do. Storytelling is an art form we use to talk about ourselves.
A river rock that moves from Point A to Point B along the riverbed has taken a journey, but not one that illuminates anything about human life, unless a storyteller comes along and helps us imagine a connection between that rock’s activity and some human experience. That would make it a story. Without the storyteller, you have only a report.
Likewise, a long, meandering description of a vapid, unformed girl, no matter how detailed, does not tell a story, any more than a description of a rock does.
I recognize that I’m old school. Aristotelian, actually. These days, a novel is anything that gets published as a novel. Nobody needs approval from me.
Nevertheless, I would like novels to tell stories. If they don’t, I feel hungry.