Quite a Coincidence

By now the memory is hazy, but I think it may have been John Barth who said (rather pontifically, and I don’t have the exact quote, so I’ll reconstruct it), “There should be exactly one coincidence in a novel. If there are no coincidences, one is bound to suspect that the author’s view of the world is too rigid and deterministic, but if there’s more than one the writer is playing fast and loose with the plot.”

After reading Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina, which is pretty good, I fast-forwarded to Tess of the Road, skipping over the second book in the series, which I’ve ordered from a local bookstore. Tess starts off well enough, but by now (more than halfway through) I’ve started to feel that it suffers from Successful Series Syndrome. Hartman has an agent, a publisher, and fans, and her first novel was highly praised, so by golly she’s going to keep the series going, even though she doesn’t quite know how she got it right the first time. (Gregory Maguire had the same problem after the success of Wicked. Great novel, dreadful series.)

There are coincidences in Tess of the Road. The plot is freighted with them.

Tess is 16 or 17. She has already had a child without benefit of marriage, and her strictly religious mother is frankly an abusive bitch. Her parents are planning to put her in a nunnery. So she hits the road. Seriously contemplates suicide, but every morning she decides to keep walking.

Prior to this, Tess has been drinking heavily. Throwing up, hitting people, that sort of thing. The plot, such as it is, is a thinly disguised Twelve-Step program. The business of deciding every morning to walk on for another day rather than kill herself — that’s the “one day at a time” part.

Early on, Tess takes shelter under a bridge and is startled by an old and addled homeless guy. She kicks him several times and then runs off. Weeks later and many miles further on, the addled old guy is dragged back into her life, so she has a chance to make amends by saving him from a couple of ruffians. Making amends is a big deal in Twelve-Step programs. Hartman actually uses the word “amends” while describing what Tess decides she needs to do. This opportunity at redemption occurs immediately after Tess has bathed (for the first time in weeks) in an icy-cold river. Baptism symbolism, anyone?

The reappearance of the old man is not the only coincidence. In the market Tess strikes up a conversation with some quigutl merchants. (They’re not human. They’re a species of lesser dragons.) She mentions a long-lost childhood quigutl friend named Pathka — and entirely by coincidence, the merchants know Pathka. So now she’s on the road with Pathka.

After managing to help the old man escape from the ruffians, she takes refuge with him in a nunnery. And of course the head nun knows her parents and recognizes her. The nun lets her know how her sister is doing and gives her some sage advice about life. So that’s three whopping big coincidences, and I’m only halfway through the book.

There are other problems.

First, Tess is our lead character, but she has no motivation. She’s not trying to solve a pressing plot problem, she’s just walking down the road. The motivation, such as it is, comes from Pathka, who has some idea that he’s going to go find and awaken the World Serpent. Who may not even exist, and whose need to be awakened is not explained.

Second, some big slices of the book — several chapters — are flashback, in which we learn how Tess got pregnant and all that. But if you squint at the back-story for a minute, it starts to look shaky. We have rebellious young Tess sneaking out and meeting a handsome boy; we have her figuring out she’s pregnant and now the boy has mysteriously disappeared; that’s all good. But Hartman has skipped over the important part, the part where Tess is in the boy’s room and gladly being in love with him. This is YA, so I’m not expecting a nude sex scene. What’s missing is Tess’s emotions — her feelings during the few months when she’s with him. Maybe Hartman is saving that bit for later in the book, we’ll see — but when you’re indulging in massive flashbacks, I can’t help feeling it’s wise to put the material in chronological order.

There is also the awkward matter of food. Tess has been on the road for weeks, walking south with her quigutl friend Pathka. She gets food by stealing it from farms. Every day, or nearly every day, stealing. She is chased, but never caught. This is unlikely on several counts. First, it qualifies as another coincidence: The author has arranged the story so that Tess has food, but without suffering either the ethical or the physical consequences of acquiring it. Second, the landscape is not very realistic. There seems to be an endless supply of farms and tiny villages, but no dark forbidding forests or mountains that have to be crossed. Also no castles full of nobles with men-at-arms to chase off the vagrants. It’s all suspiciously convenient. Third — well, I’ve never tried stealing food from a farmhouse, so I don’t know for certain, but I kind of doubt food is left lying around where it’s easy for thieves to pick up. You have to go into the kitchen or the cellar, and that means waiting around for hours, for a moment when nobody is in the kitchen or the cellar or standing outside in the yard watching, and how can you tell if anybody is in the kitchen? If you sneak up to peek through the window, won’t the dogs start barking? I just don’t buy it.

Tess falls in with the two ruffians who are, for no reason that makes any sense, dragging the addled old man around. Tess is pretending to be a boy. Okay, she has small breasts, she has hacked off her hair, and she’s tall. I’m okay with all that. But Tess and the ruffians then travel together for some days — and Tess can’t urinate standing up! Hartman never mentions this inconvenient fact. Every time the “boy” needs to pee, “he” has to go off in the bushes to squat down, and the two ruffians never take the least notice.

No, it doesn’t work. Tess’s life as a vagabond runs way too smoothly. She has no motivation that would provide a strong, focused plot, and her failed romance has a gaping hole in the middle. Combine that with three whopping coincidences (running into Pathka, having the old man dragged back onstage so she can make amends, and then encountering the friendly nun), and what we have is an author who is cutting corners. She’s cutting herself way too much slack.

Writing a good novel is hard work, folks. Don’t do it this way.

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