The plot's the thing . . .

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Thinking over The African Queen, I have to marvel at C.S. Forester's ability to wring a plot out of action largely centered on keeping a rickety steamship afloat.  Page after page finds Allnut "address[ing] himself to the engine," "haul[ing] out a panful of hot ashes and dump[ing] them overboard," "fill[ing] the furnace with fresh wood," "peer[ing] at his gauges," "haul[ing] in the anchor," etc. (p. 15).  A critical sequence - for the plot and for the relationship between Rose and Charlie Allnut - occupying a full twelve pages of text - involves straightening a shaft and fixing a broken propeller (p. 122-134). 

Yet the action never drags, I never got bored, and I was turning pages so fast that I finished the whole book in one sitting (or just about).  I'm amazed and, frankly, not sure how he did it.

One reason that I can discern is the humor that Forester invests in his storytelling.  His vivid descriptions of Charlie's antics keeping the boat afloat evoke images of Chaplin-esque physical comedy in the mind of the reader (or at least this reader).  Charlie's speech about the impossibility of fixing the twisted shaft and the broken propeller (on p. 122) is laugh-out-loud funny.

Another reason is a quality I'll call "storyteller instinct."  I've often listened to people relate interesting events in a way that makes me yearn for more absorbing conversation - something about the tax code maybe?  Similarly, I've often been surprised at the laughter or expressions of fascination expressed by people listening to me recount some appallingly boring experience.  It's not the content, but the way it's presented.  C.S. Forester is apparently the kind of master craftsman of storytelling who can make the mechanics of rickety steamships scintillating reading fare.

C.S. Forester's plotting supports my hunch - or is it a preference? - that the plot's the thing that crowns a storyteller a king (with apologies to Shakespeare, Hamlet and those less silly than I).

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This page contains a single entry by Maya published on September 6, 2009 8:22 AM.

View of The New Yorker from Naivasha was the previous entry in this blog.

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