Jhumpa Lahiri’s story, “A Temporary Matter,” opens with this sentence: “The notice informed them that it was a temporary matter: for five days their electricity would be cut off for one hour, beginning at eight P.M.” Eerily resonant with the shocking news out of Texas this past week about the cold weather and the failure of the electrical grid, Lahiri’s story starts in the aftermath of a snowstorm that has brought down a line that needs to be repaired. Hence the one-hour blackouts meant to continue for five days.
It’s such a simple premise, yes? A wrinkle in the regular come-and-go of the lives of a married couple—the wife, Shoba, and the husband, Shukumar. Just a little something to vary the routine of their days. That routine, we quickly learned has been influenced by the fact that six months before the story begins, their baby was stillborn while Shukumar was away at a conference. Since then, Shoba and Shukumar have been drifting apart. Now, with the nightly power outages, Shoba suggest that they “say something to each other in the dark.” Something neither has ever told the other. Their secrets start out innocently enough. On their first date, Shoba checked his address book to see if he’d written her in; Shukumar forgot to tip the waiter the first time he and Shoba went to dinner and went back the next morning to correct the oversight. Each night, the secrets get a bit more significant, and as they do, the couple draws closer together. I’ll refrain from revealing the final round of secrets so as not to ruin the story for anyone who hasn’t read it. Suffice it to say, the exchange is heartbreaking and devastating. At the end of the story, Shoba and Shukumar tell each other things they never could have imagined saying.
This all happens because something out of the ordinary occurs—the blackouts—and because Lahiri fills in the back story of the stillbirth. Our characters are always carrying something from their pasts with them when our stories begin. That something influences the action of the story, and the action leads the characters to a moment beyond which they’ll never be the same. Often an indirect route to the heart of the story is the best way forward. A power outage in the Lahiri story creates an opportunity for Shoba to invite Shukumar to exchange secrets. The exchange of those secrets leads the couple to a place from which there’s no return. “What is character but the determination of incident?” Henry James says in “The Art of Fiction.” “What is incident but the illustration of character?” We might say it this way: Character creates plot, and plot reveals character.
I worry sometimes that plot is diminished or underappreciated these days. Maybe it’s a result of our times where there seems to be no logical sequence of events, no cause and effect. With all the noise and fear around us, it’s easy to believe this to be so, but I retain a faith in the pattern of a world in which people make choices that lead to certain actions that lead to consequences. As Margaret Atwood says, “All fiction is about people, unless it’s about rabbits pretending to be people. It’s all essentially characters in action, which means characters moving through time and changes taking place, and that’s what we all ‘the plot.’”
I’ve always loved the way a good story can give shape to chaos. Starting with a simple variation in the ordinary can put a plot into motion. A character’s actions can sustain it. A relevant back story can give the action significant meaning all the way to the resonant end of a sequence of events. The actions don’t have to be grand in scale; they only have to be memorable for the people involved. Plot needs to take characters and readers to places neither they nor we could have seen coming even if we’d tried—those places of inevitable surprises, the ones that catch us by the throats and make us look at the truths of what it is to be alive on this earth.