Issue 24 Shadows Winter 2006/07
There is always a surprise in store for the anatomy or physiology of any criticism that might think it had mastered the game, surveyed all the threads at once.
In 1928, William Wallace Cook (1867–1933), author of several hundred works of fiction, published Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots, a would-be exhaustive anatomy of narrative structures designed as a practical guide for aspiring novelists. Cook’s own plots tended to stretch verisimilitude in proto-science fictional displacements of time and space: The Blue Peter Troglodyte (1904) involves an eight-foot prehistoric man found preserved in a mine and revived; in The Eighth Wonder (1907) the earth’s rotation stops; Marooned in 1492 (1905) is a bleaker version of Twain’s Connecticut Yankee; and A Round Trip to the Year 2000 (1903) is an early example of a novel imagining time travel to a future dystopian society where work is done by robot slaves. Especially fascinated by robots, Cook not only narrated their exploits but made it possible with Plotto for the narrator too to become a kind of unconscious android, following distant narrative prescriptions and dictates. These emerge from Plotto’s Frankensteinian laboratory (or is it a pharmacy?) where Cook—with the android rationality of a master of all narrative threads—first quickly scans the full panoply of human desires and scenarios (and science fiction additions and amendments to both) and then reduces this “data” into a series of clauses that can be combined readily into narratives and dispensed—imagine it coming out on a prescription pad—to bumbling, all-too-human would-be narrators.
Reducing the world to thirty-six master plots, Cook’s hard-boiled structuralism treats each as a sentence with three interchangeable clauses: “An initial Clause defining the protagonist in general terms, a middle Clause initiating and carrying on the action, and a final Clause … terminating the action.” Within this larger taxonomy, Cook sees plot as driven by the desire for three kinds of happiness: in love and courtship, in married life, or in enterprise. “All that is possible to a mortal craftsman,” Cook advises, channeling Ecclesiastes, “is the combining of old material into something new and different.”
Even within this tiny horizon of recycled desires, however, Plotto’s user, attempting to follow Cook’s procedures through a plot sentence’s three clauses, is immediately thrust into a morass of numbered plot fragments, an endless inventory of floating motivations and gratuitous (or unreachable) conclusions. Parenthetical possibilities impinge on our progress, opening bureaucratic vortices of impossible plot-strand management, while holding out the lure of distant sentence completion—which always vanishes or folds inward upon closer inspection. Like the prototypical characters offered by Plotto, the novelist-apprentice is cast in rapid succession, too, as “a person of ideals,” “an erring person,” “a person subjected to adverse conditions,” and finally, “a resentful person.” “Stricken with fever in a wilderness country,” we come to know all of the variant flavors of B-Clause 267—“Misfortune”—while pining for the elusive C-Clause conclusions: emerging “happily from a serious entanglement” or, better, “foiling a guilty plotter and defeating a subtle plot.”
The infinite versions of misfortune offered by Plotto to its would-be users may have been the cause of Wycliffe A. Hill’s attempt, three years later, to convert Plotto into a more practical how-to manual, reducing Cook’s plots down to the rounder, more logical, thirty-one. It is no accident, then, that Hill chose the title Plot Robot for this new book, which “enabled its users,” as historian of science-fiction Sam Moskowitz tells us, “simply by turning a disc, to come up with numbers in the book that comprised arbitrary plot elements he could fit together into a total plot pattern.”1 But forget about the inevitable popularizers of the Master’s work. We have not exhumed Plotto merely to inform readers in 2007 that the 1928 plot manual made perhaps over-exacting demands on its users, nor to laugh at the restricted and oddly domestic nature of imaginable plots for Cook. No, we are pleased with its exuberance and incoherence. We propose, rather, to inspect the foaming beakers, boiling pots, and half-finished androids of Cook’s plot pharmacy, where the master plot-maker cooks up an exhaustive list of combinable scenarios, dispensed to narrative-challenged apprentices that we might imagine in line at the counter, picking up their prescriptions. We will help Cook stir. We will monitor his simmering scenarios. And, if we are lucky, we may even be able to trace one or two as they move through the extended and airless time of Cook’s own novels.
Let us therefore try our Plotto-generated novel not with the twitchy impatience of the blinkered novel-maker who ventures into Cook’s netherworld hoping only to emerge rapidly on the other side, workable story in hand, but rather with the calm enthusiasm of an Atget of Plotto’s mysterious plot cul-de-sacs, its baffling cross-reference canals, its enigmatic dead-end walls. The plight of the Plotto user teaches us that we need far more than the manual’s proposed three clauses to get anything close to a complete narrative. We will therefore supplement Cook’s directions. Let us begin, then, by selecting the natural and in a sense archetypal character within Cook’s inventory of ready-to-use narrative manikins: A5—“a male criminal.” What could drive this as-yet-unmoved mover, what could activate all of his criminality into the most entertaining of scenarios? We pause on B-Clause 46: “seeking retaliation for a grievous wrong that is either real or fancied.” Perfect. We’ll make him a mob boss who’d previously controlled a lucrative city block, and now wishes to challenge the incursion of a rival gang member who has set up a “pharmacy”—in reality a cover for dealing heroin and speed and running numbers behind a façade of respectability.
(I’m combining a couple of categories now, but you don’t have to know that—you can’t even see the book anyway; it’s rare and expensive, unavailable in most libraries. I just happen to be borrowing a friend’s copy, let’s call him Rocco, best described as A12 (“a subtle person”), who had set out to write a Ph.D. dissertation on speech act theory and crime fiction, especially J. L. Austin and Jim Thompson, which was going to be called How to Kill People with Words, but after completing his preliminary examinations, which he might describe as an instance of B22 (“following a wrong course through mistaken judgment”), grew disenchanted and became involved in a puzzling complication that had to do with an “object possessing mysterious powers” (B54), eventually jettisoning his speech act/crime fiction manuscript—whose critical plot itself had begun to splinter into two competing directions, the first a combination of Frankfurt School and Pragmatism, the second having more to do with the so-called popular address of the best rock criticism (with a dash of crime fiction thrown in), so that when Rocco began to write, he first had to make peace between these warring tonalities—in order to concentrate on a novel to be called The Zebra Stripes, which was about a murderer named Levon at once A3 (“a lawless person”) and A7 (“a person of ideals”) who sought to obtain an exhaustive collection of the “work” of a particularly accomplished and famous Japanese tattoo artist (named Moskowitz), pursuing the epidermises of the artist’s subjects like pelts, though when the novel got bogged down in plot concerns, stemming largely from the difficulty of reconciling the technical lexicon of tattoo language (and its attendant asides on the philosophy of skin that update and expand Melville) with the noirish unfolding of a series of grisly murders, Rocco became aware of “an important secret that called for decisive action” (B61) and began patiently scoping out a series of ancient though pristine restaurants around a major city, eventually renovating a 1920s-era ice-cream parlor into a hipster breakfast nook, while retaining the old-world soda-fountain charm, and introducing a candy counter with difficult-to-find sweets and gum, perhaps leading, this time, to one of the more positive C-Clause conclusions, though I won’t predict one yet—you can certainly decide for yourselves if you ever get your hands on a copy of Plotto, or meet Rocco).
But Rocco’s soda fountain should not be confused with the pharmacy of about the same period in the hypothetical Plotto novel we began before the last parenthetical interlude, for which we’ll now need to introduce a second character: A4, “an erring person” (whom we’ll call Blotto), bound in B38 (“committing a grievous mistake and seeking in secret to live down its evil results”). We’ll make Blotto an Amish farmer with bizarre phrasing who desires above all else to become a novelist. But the members of the first gang (we’ll call their boss Austin) hook Blotto on methamphetamines and then force him to spend counterfeit bills in the fake pharmacy (controlled by a character we’ll call Thompson), with the eventual plan (I think) of having these bills discovered through a sting operation run by Austin’s cousin, a shady government inspector (we’ll call him Levon, like the murderer in The Zebra Stripes) who works at a municipal office capable of that kind of activity (don’t bother me with questions about its name). (Perhaps at the same time Blotto should, on the side, be perfecting an android, named Wycliffe, that could either supply his drug habit or release him from bondage to the mob, or both?) In any case, desiring to cover the tracks of his money, the farmer pretends to view writing as an instrument of duplicity—a philter of forgetfulness harmful and benumbing to the invisible interior of the soul—and conducts all of his business transactions by verbal agreements in person. This appears to the druggist as C12 (“rescuing integrity from a serious entanglement”) but is in reality B50 (“being impelled by an unusual motive to engage in a crafty enterprise”). In lieu of receipts, the farmer thus has in-depth conversations about storytelling with the fraudulent Greek druggist (we’ll call him Socrates) set up by Thompson, who initially finds this practice both hilarious and useful, since (in addition to showcasing Blotto’s awkward idiolects and appealing to Socrates’ innate human desire for narrative) it absolves the pharmacy of any record of the speed-freak farmer’s purchases. [Why, you wonder, is a mob-run fake pharmacy in the habit of giving receipts for methamphetamines? Let’s just bracket that enigma with a new kind of extra solid square bracket, sometimes called a Husserlian Bracket, and move on.] But then suppose that Socrates “becomes involved” (following B-Clause 55) “in a mysterious complication and seeks to make the utmost of a bizarre experience”; Socrates notices that the banknotes are fake but destroys them himself in order to continue his heart-to-heart conversations about narrative with Blotto. At the same moment Blotto becomes ambivalent. He considers abandoning both his imposed scam and his side labors on Wycliffe, his android (not to mention the novels), and working instead as a tailor’s dummy for a young millionaire (B1028). But before Blotto can extricate himself from the hoods, gang one (which, under the direction of Austin, calls this sting “The Farmer Con”) brings in Levon on the scheme, tipping him off about the counterfeit bills. Levon discovers that the pharmacy that Blotto has been frequenting (all the while avoiding writing as a dangerous supplement) resembles nothing so much as a favorite childhood soda fountain and becomes fascinated, nay entranced, with the various beakers, viles, curative powders (and Blotto’s android, Wycliffe, which has inexplicably wandered into the building) which resemble, for him, a collection of containers, confectionary substances and manikins with all of the evocative force of a certain French cookie famous for its latent narrative powers, though not sold in Levon’s childhood soda fountain. Emerging from a thorough examination of the contents of the pharmacy, front to back (ostensibly conducted for bills, but in reality a mnemonic exercise that might generate another piece of writing) Levon muses privately on the Farmer Con, focusing not so much on its moral implications, but rather on the power of its setting, which he locates, quite literally, “in the back room, in the shadows of the pharmacy, prior to the oppositions between conscious and unconscious, freedom and restraint, voluntary and involuntary, speech and language.” This discourse (of which I include only the tiniest part) points to C13, in which a searcher comes finally to the blank wall of enigma. And yet from behind this wall something presently begins to stir. Levon calls and there emerges a man (whom we will call Genette) who, on a small blackboard that had hitherto remained unnoticed, draws a long sequence of numbers and letters: B267 (A5 [B46] C12 (B22, A3+A7, B61, C?), B38, [?], C12, B50, B55, [] C13]). The equation is still accumulating as the narrative curtain closes.
You see, then, how this crossed connection-making can, with Plotto’s help, emerge into a novel of great clarity and success—one that, moreover, allows plot-generation to take on the robotic quality that Wycliffe Hill noted in retitling Cook’s manual Plot Robot. The term robot was first used in 1920 in Karel Capek’s novel RUR—seventeen years, that is, after Cook’s A Round Trip to the Year 2000; or a Flight Through Time (1903) where what we now call robots were known as “muglugs.”2 In Cook’s novel, a character named Lumley is chased into the future. Hounded by a detective named Kinch (who has been pursuing Lumley in order to receive a reward offered by a bank Lumley robbed while under hypnosis—that is, operating as robot, as the novel is careful to point out),3 Lumley is on the point of casting himself off a pier when a “mysterious dwarf” (Doctor Kelpie) approaches and shuffles him into his house where a time machine awaits to convey Lumley to the year 2000. But just as the machine is set to take off, Kinch breaks in and wedges himself in as well. When the two arrive in 2000, they discover not only a bummer dystopian culture (where an Air Trust controls and charges for access to oxygen, food is a tasteless vapor, men are effeminate, and, horror of horror, women hit on them)4 but also, more disturbingly, that Lumley’s utopian books The Possibilities of the Subconscious Ego (which sold 36 copies in his day) and Time and Space and their Limitations are the basis for this society. It is through them that the population controls their robots, which are “seven feet tall, apparently constructed of steel and heavily shod with brass.” And it is through them, too, that nomenclature has been reduced to an unambiguous system: “There are one billion people in the United States and her colonies, and no two of them have the same name.” (Would that Cook had sketched, too, the principles of this system in a parallel work to Plotto!) What happens in the year 2000 would take too long to narrate (and you are doubtless a little fatigued by plot summaries at this point); suffice to say that A Round Trip presents a hell of unfinished dilemmas—deployed with an oddly mechanical, combinatory flair—in which humans and androids continually change places, and the time travelers are soon eager to return to 1900 (as eager as this reader was to put down A Round Trip). But we will leave them stranded now and begin our own search for escape from the Byzantine metropolis of nested (and forever expanding) plots in which the cursed reader of Plotto is fated, ever after, to pace out his days.
Lytle Shaw’s publications include the poetry books Cable Factory 20 (Atelos, 1999) and The Lobe (Roof, 2002), as well as the critical study, Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie (Iowa University Press, 2006). Shaw, a contributing editor at Cabinet, teaches American literature at New York University.
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© 2007 Cabinet Magazine