We have so many ingrained and unchallenged expectations about stories. About novels in particular, I think. Those expectations aren’t limited to genre-specific stuff, either. We expect even avant-garde, highbrow novels to follow a certain arc. And even that’s wrong — we expect to be able to use the arc as a metaphor for what we hope to find. There’s going to be a plot, and complications, and rising action, and a climax, and falling action. Even if these things aren’t always easy to isolate — I don’t know that I could identify the climax (a single climax especially) in a Pynchon novel — there’s still a shape to the plot and the story, and arc is usually how we think of that shape.
Then you read something like The Butterfly Lampshade and have to throw most of that aside.
I started the book months ago, immediately loved the voice, loved Bender’s typically vivid and striking way with sensory detail. Then the book started to lose me, or I started to lose the book, and anyway I put it down for long time, even though I enjoyed every word I’d read.
It wasn’t until I came back to the book, in the last few weeks, that I appreciated what it was doing, and how different it is from what I must have expected, especially after reading and loving The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. There are similarities between the books, but Butterfly stubbornly refuses to anchor its plot. This seemed to me at a mistake at first. It felt as if Bender was infusing the book with so much (rich, extraordinary) sensory and psychological detail that the plot had become an afterthought.
And maybe that’s actually true, but it’s not a weakness of the book. It could be that Butterfly is less accessible as a novel because it can’t deliver some of the beats we expect, but it’s so striking and so unusual because of what it is able to do: it’s a very openly philosophical exploration of memory, and mental health, and especially our relationship to things and to thingness, along with the value and meaning we place on the things in our lives. That makes it sound as if there are no emotional stakes, which isn’t true. But what makes the book different is that those emotional stakes at least don’t appear to be specifically connected to the book’s plot. Instead, they’re almost entirely driven by internal forces, which makes the book philosophically rich and even kind of profound, even if it necessarily loses some narrative tension without those external agents of change.
The entire book feels in some ways like an image taking shape. All novels do this, they all reveal more and more of their characters and their plot and their themes as they move on. But Butterfly‘s image feels intentionally static. The narrator is explicit about this, that she’s trying to hold something from her past in her mind and experience it fully. It’s that phrase experience it fully that takes on a kind of otherworldly glow here, and that gives the book its psychological and intellectual weight.
And if that sounds too cerebral, then you also have Bender’s way of bringing a character to life with crazy, beautiful efficiency. When Francie’s steward, hired to accompany her to the west coast on her train ride, decides to read aloud from his book to help her sleep, he reads from the middle rather than the beginning of the book. Then we have this:
I did not have the energy to care about a book, and to start the beginning might have felt a demand on my attention, but to start where he had left off meant he would be fully engaged and I could drift in and out as needed… This tiny choice he made, this delicate calibration of his position against mine, of our two-people-ness.
This is where she shines as a writer, I think. Because now I feel as if I know everything about the steward, and I also know more about Francie, both the young girl she was then and the narrator contemplating what “this tiny choice” meant from her adult perspective.
And it’s in the service of what seems to be the book’s (and the narrator’s) objective: to experience it fully. What’s so impressive here is how this interrogation of memory can feel so necessary, so urgent, without the separate engine of a more traditional plot to guide it.