Plot-Resistant Narrative and Russell Banks's "Black Man and White Woman in Dark Green Rowboat."

Article excerpt

If much of contemporary literary theory emphasizes the cultural production of class, race, and gender in American fiction, contemporary fiction that utilizes the resources of narrative minimalism to explore issues of cultural division - fiction by such writers as Raymond Carver, Toni Morrison, Susan Minot, and Russell Banks - increasingly provides the context for critical debate. The refusal to elaborate plot or to use plot to suggest a narrator who controls interpretation, becomes itself a strategy that allows the reader to observe clearly the boundaries between the story's minimal plot and the way the socially produced narratives invoked by the story enforce cultural division. If we conceive of narrative as the establishment, for the reader, of a network of expectations within a frame of contingency, then perhaps no expectation is more fundamental than that of intelligible action@ the progression of story through chronological time, which we commonly refer to as plot. In a world where the possibilities of plot express unattainable desires on the part of a narrative's characters, however, the reader's desire for a resolution of plot into meaning is thwarted, and the resultant anxiety the reader feels underscores his or her complicity with the frustrations and incoherencies of the characters, lives. These incoherencies resist sentimental assimilation into the reader's aesthetic imagination. The resultant daydreams and wish-fulfilling fantasies display, as Fredric Jameson argues, the otherwise inconceivable link between history and desire (182). Russell Banks's Black Man and White Woman in Dark Green Rowboat" presents precisely such an evasive narrative, one whose very evasion establishes a dialogic relationship between the reader and a cast of characters whose lives display the wreckage of the larger cultural narratives that marginalize them. In effect, Banks's minimalism accentuates the missing cultural narratives that have written the characters into the margins.

"Black Man and White Woman" does, of course, present things that happen. The story opens with an apparently random variety of people who live in a trailerpark commencing their days. The reader is not immediately aware that the black man and the white woman are the focus of the story. They gradually emerge from the narrative background, and the story follows them as they row onto the lake, converse laconically, and row home. The sense of nothing happening is created in the context of their desire, both their physical desire for each other and their desire to construct plots that might provide a meaningful structure to their lives. The two potentially significant events - their sexual encounter and her abortion scheduled for later in the afternoon - remain outside the story, framing the story's temporal sequence. The reader expects that the narrator will center on the gravity of these events as a way of interpreting the characters, lives, but they remain unnarrated. Possible narratives of tragic youth are suggested, but the sexual encounter and projected abortion collapse into the sequence of isolated meaningless events. The black man and the white woman are simply incapable of incorporating them into a desired pattern of meaning.

The failure of meaning is in part due to the fact that the plot trajectories each character envisions are at cross-purposes. She values him for his totemic significance - he is an exotic. She calls him "a sheik." Toni Morrison, in her recent book Playing in the Dark, describes this as a process central even to American fiction not ostensibly about race relations. It is a process of fetishization by which African Americans can be given value in the context of a white culture that excludes them (68). By having the abortion, the woman wishes to recuperate their relationship into her respectable white world of family and friends. The man wishes to yank the woman out of just this "nigger-hating" social network and give her identity as the object of his sexuality - she should have the baby and live stranded on an island in the lake. …