When I teach Plot in my creative writing classes, I return again and again to Anne Lamott who says, "You need to be moving your characters forward, even if they only go slowly. Imagine moving them across a lily pond. If each lily pad is beautifully, carefully written, the reader will stay with you as you move toward the other side of the pond, needing only the barest of connections -- such as rhythm, tone, or mood (Bird by Bird, 59). This is a lily pad novel. The writing is lovely, elegiac in tone, and meticulous. This may very well be enough for some readers. However, I am not sure these beautifully constructed lily pads were quite enough for me. Perhaps the pond beneath was too murky.
This novel purports to be the story of George Washington Crosby, a clock repairman, as he lies on his deathbed. However, the novel's locus soon shifts to George's father, Howard, an epileptic traveling salesman who abandons his family when his wife decides to have him committed. We also see glimpses of Howard's father, a failed preacher. The book shifts back and forth among these characters, revealing the tenuous relationships that exist between these fathers and sons. While very little actually happens in the novel by way of plot, its scope is fairly grand, examining themes of fatherhood and absence and inheritance.
But what I found most frustrating about this novel was not that so little happened, but that those events that were dramatized felt (at times) arbitrary. I wanted Harding to achieve what Tobias Wolf manages in "Bullet in the Brain." But while Wolf captures (in three pages) an entire life in that moment before death, I felt like I had only the most impressionistic sense of George's life after nearly 200 pages in Harding's novel. This coupled with the also seemingly arbitrary shifts in point of view and lack of any cohesive structure left me frustrated and eager for the novel to end.
I champion the quiet novel, and there was much to be admired in Harding's ambition and prose. But there are other novels and stories that have done it better; Evening by Susan Minot is one.