Any introduction to writing or literature class will include the theory that most (if not all) books follow a pattern of escalating peaks that reach a climax before drifting off into a denouement. In a line graph, the crux of the book, regardless of the genre, would stand above everything else. The pattern of plot denotes a clear beginning, middle and end.
But what if a book chooses to disregard this tried-and-true formula? What if the book chops off the traditional beginning and end? What if the middle the book portrays would be more of a flat line in a traditional book’s graph?
If the book is The Odds by Stewart O’Nan, you’re in luck. And, under close observation, the flat line displays fractal properties of the traditional plot graph. Readers meet Art and Marion Fowler as the couple travels to Niagara Falls. A whole other novel could take place before page 1: The Fowler marriage and finances are already dissolving, with only legal steps remaining before both are wiped out, when we meet them.
The two return to the site of their honeymoon with what remains of their savings in a last-ditch attempt to regain financial solvency at the casinos. The plan is Art’s idea; Marion goes along with it because she doesn’t have a better idea. Art’s other idea is to win back Marion’s heart, to return to the passion of their younger years. Marion just wants the weekend to be over.
Like O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, it’s easy to say not much happens in The Odds. Instead both novels offer a glimpse of a couple of almost ordinary days in the lives of ordinary people.
What other authors might treat as a peak to build tension — say, a bus accident — O’Nan uses to build character. Art wants to comfort Marion, but isn’t sure how it would be received given her constant rejections of intimacy. Marion wonders how the accident will delay their trip.
ONan tells the story from a third-person point of view that shifts perspective between Art and Marion. The transitions in perspective work seamlessly and serve to fill in some of the back story that led the couple to page 1.
While Art saw the divorce as a legal formality, a convenient shelter for whatever assets they might have left, from the beginning she’d taken the idea seriously, weighing her options and responsibilities—plumbing, finally, her heart—trying, unsuccessfully, to keep the ghost of Wendy Daigle out of the equation. How much easier it would be if Wendy Daigle were dead …. She’d lost her spot on the page and read the same sentence again, sighed and kneaded the bunched muscles of her neck.
“Want a neck rub?” Art offered.
“I’m just tired of sitting.” She shifted and went back to her book, ignoring him again.
These little rebuffs, he would never get used to them. Years ago he’d come to accept that no matter how saintly he was from then on, like a murderer, he would always be wrong, damned by his own hand, yet he was always surprised and hurt when she turned him down.
Art and Marion are masters of masking their reactions. Inside, they may question what the other is doing, imagine unsaid conversations and untaken actions. On the surface they remain calm, even though, and sometimes because, that calmness frustrates the other.
The Odds ends when the Fowlers’ weekend at the Falls does. What happens to them after the casino is left to the reader decide. O’Nan’s approach may not be the traditional peak-and-valley storytelling, but his quieter approach is worth spending time with.