When I ask people what they’re reading, or they ask me, the next question that usually follows is: “Well, what’s the book about?” Invariably the answer to this question has something to do with the plot of the novel. Oh it’s about WW1, or about a catholic priest who molests children, or a trial, or a wizard fighting evil. In the case of Esi Edugyan’sHalf Blood Blues, I had heard the book was about jazz musicians living in Paris during World War Two. I’d be lying if I said I found that rough plot sketch engaging. In fact, having heard a great deal about the book – as it was up for a number of major awards in Canada last year and I attended a reading – I remained steadfastly disinterested because the way the book was described; what it purported to be “about,” didn’t interest me at all. I’m not keen on jazz and so a book that was described as a plot about jazz musicians, well, it just didn’t pique my interest. Much in the same way I’ve turned down books described as “about” other “boring” (to me, at least) topics, people, eras.
And so as I started readingHalf Blood Bluesand realized that I was very much enjoying the book I began thinking about the limits of the question “what is the book about”? Because inevitably the answer to that question has something to do with plot, or, more rarely, character. But great novels aren’t “about” plot. No, great novels engage with questions, issues and ideas – questions and ideas that get worked out in the formal elements of theme, plot, character, setting, tone and diction. To say a book is “about” WW2 or “about” jazz misses the purpose of the book entirely. By reducing novels to their plot elements we concomitantly, and mistakenly, reduce their value to something of an informational snapshot. Read this book to find out about depression, or read this book to learn about the Russian Revolution. Novels, really great novels, are about persistent and provocative questions and ideas. They are those novels that ask the reader to reconsider their position on current issues, common humanity, identity, etc.
The “etc” is in itself indicative of the breadth of “big” questions novels engage with. There’s no list that can neatly encompass (nor should there be!) the wealth of what novels can be, and are, “about.” Rather, we’d do better when reading to describe the novel not as a plot line, but as an engagement with/consideration of/investigation into whatever question, or idea, or problem. Does this risk slipping back into plot? Sure, to say it’s a consideration of “the challenges faced by black musicians under Hitler” is no less a description of plot. But to sayHalf Blood Bluesexplores the limits of bravery, considers selfishness and jealousy, and investigates the persistence of guilt over time… well, that might well get closer to what the book is “about.”
And the caveat that these are the descriptions of what a book is “about” that are better left to those really great novels is not without consideration. Perhaps this is one of the distinguishing features of really great novels: they are about much more than their plot. Here’s a hypothesis: Terrible fiction, that stuff that I’ve started giving up mid-way through, are stories reduced to a core element: character, setting, plot.The Night Circus,for instance, was terrible because it was *only* about its setting andGame of Thronesis awful because it’s overwhelming driven by plot.
And so Half Blood Blues is good, or even great, fiction because it is a story that asks and tries to pose half-answers (but never complete ones) to enduring questions, and it poses those questions not through the single element of plot or character, but through the complex weave of the formal elements: the melodic diction and tone of our first person protagonist; the symbolic repetition of those things mixed in colour (that Sid can’t stomach black coffee, that he *needs* milk, is, I think, no accident); the artful shifting in chronology that upsets teleological plot expectations and requires the reader continually shift expectations about what happens when and to whom, and more critically,why, characters do what they do; the complex characters that develop over time, but who do not (as we might well expect from observing those people who surround us) fundamentally change all that much. It is a book that is about jazz musicians as much as you might say Genesis is a book about a snake in a garden, or Moby Dick is about hunting a white whale, or Crime and Punishment is about a murder.
Great novels are not about their plot; they are about their readers.