What’s Wrong with Perfection

My copy of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants (2006) is missing a portion of its back cover and last few pages—like it’d been chow for roaches or pulled across asphalt, at a sharp and insensitive angle.
But I bought it at Goodwill—in a 10 books for $2 deal, where the lady tells me at the register that I’ll pay $2 regardless of how many books I have, so I rush around slow shoppers inspecting wooly sweaters to the back of the store and look under a stack of water-damaged Dave Barry books to find some works of fiction. And so it’s expected that this “#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER,” which has sold something like five million copies, will have a bit of damage. I’m okay with it. All necessary pages are intact. And plus, it gives the book “character,” which some reviews will tell you this book is sorely lacking.
Oh, burn, snap, roasted, etc.
THE BOOK IS FINE.
The initial premise is promising: an Ivy League vet-in-training walks right out of his exit exams (because he can’t think about anything but his recently deceased parents) and right into a traveling circus.
The structure is rigidly perfect. It has all of the things you’d expect from a well-crafted (read: well-edited) story. The complications mount throughout the book. The stakes rise. A deadline is introduced. Obstacles are episodically overcome.
Which brings me to my thoughts about the separateness of plot and character. Robert McKee, in his legendary Story, explains that the two are inextricable. They are the same thing, for plot comes out of character and character is developed through the action of the plot. And thus all arguments re the precedence of plot over character or vice versa are vacuous: because they begin from a false dichotomy.
My initial thoughts about the book were mostly technical—which I admit is one reason I read the book: to get better at plotting and structure, but also description and pacing. But the book didn’t hit me in the gut, didn’t make me care or feel. The blame rests on the characters, because I didn’t see humans in this book. I saw tropes, caricatures—depthless understudies who on the night before the big production got the call but hadn’t experienced the far reaches of their character through weeks of preparation.
A couple notes about our main character: (1) The plot device/delivery system of the story is a back-and-forth given by a dreaming, ornery, unsympathetic 90-year-old in an assisted living institution—he relives the main story through dreams while he lives a poor, static story (with a good, Hollywood ending); (2) The main character is flat; even the climax of the story is observation (inaction) by the main character, our hero, our protagonist; he doesn’t act but gets swept up by the crazy world around him—literally, and larger, this is what happens through the story proper.
So back to character v. plot: I wondered how the plot could be so good yet the characters so weak—which many people say about Michael Crichton, right? And for this book, WfE, the characters are as technically perfect as the plot.
They match. They’re congruent.
(Which, hello, the author’s name is in that word, so that’s something.)
But we don’t want perfect characters. We want imperfections, what we call humanity. That’s the source of conflict, real conflict—not what this book is littered with. A stock villain and a stock character cannot offer true conflict, because—it seems to me—true conflict develops off the page, in a reader’s consciousness, her expectation of what will occur. So if what’s expected is what occurs, then that’s the absence of conflict.
So does that mean that situational irony—the discrepancy between what the audience expects and what actually happens, like “The Boy who Cried Wolf”—is the framework of our current storytelling? Irony is central. That’s for sure. But I don’t think we necessarily need situational irony, at least not as brazenly as in the aforementioned fable.
We just need to meet real characters who get motivated by the little ironies that all humans do. And not the same retreaded ones, please. Like adulterous love affairs.