In Praise of Books in Which Nothing Happens

Sometimes nothing needs to “happen.” Sometimes, as a reader, just following a mysterious fictional stranger as they go about the awkward and unstable business of living is enough. This can be one of the deepest and most satisfying experiences of reading. Sometimes a writer really wants nothing to happen, and sometimes a crowded and eventful life is shown at a remove, as a collection of apparently arbitrary events rather than a tightly structured narrative. Which is, arguably, what a life feels like.

I’d also like the recommend these books because so much emphasis is put on the tension of the story, on finding the dramatic event, and it’s interesting to read books in which there is no such event. The tension is in the telling.

Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley

A lower middle class girl grows up in provincial England, and we follow her from early childhood through to middle age. That’s it. She has a few relationships, a few kids, some friendships, she fights with her mother, she works, she thinks about her life, but only in passing, because she’s busy living. The kind of book that’s not supposed to work, except it does.

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri

She’s best known for The Namesake, which was made into a film, and her first book, The Interpreter of Maladies. They’re good. Read this one. As a sidenote, she also moved from the US to Italy, learned Italian, and began publishing in Italian. Her work is now translated from Italian and back to English. This is itself astonishing. As is this book. A woman, middle-aged, single, childless, goes about her days in a large Italian city. She shops for groceries, chats with friends, thinks about her childhood, thinks about aging. Each chapter is short, simple, perfect. You won’t believe how perfect.

Outline by Rachel Cusk

This is the first of a trilogy, but you can read it by itself (and the other two aren’t as good). Cusk herself is, I think, a bit of an art monster. Hats off, but only at a distance. That said, this is riveting, and a departure from what the novel is supposed to be, entirely. A writer in early middle age goes to a writers’ conference in Athens, where she will teach a workshop. While there, she has a few conversations. Nothing happens. Everything happens. I’m still thinking about this book, years after it was published.