What makes a plot “arthritic”?

In my post on Ann Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread I quoted the Washington Post’s assessment (at the beginning of a rave review) that its plot was “arthritic”  I don’t know what that means.  Presumably the reviewer is talking about the events of the novel, which are standard-issue Ann Tyler: ordinary people working their way through ordinary problems.  But isn’t that what most literary fiction is about?  Alice McDermott’s Somewhere and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteredge, for example, are no different, except in their locations.  (I talk about them briefly here and here.)

Maybe the reviewer doesn’t like how Tyler lays out the structure of the events?  But that can’t be it.  The structure is perfectly comprehensible, but she fractures the time sequence and the points of view in interesting and modern ways.  The novel begins by hopping forward through time a bit, and it ends unexpectedtly with two deep flashbacks, one with about the grandparents, who are dead long before the main action begins, and the other about how the parents fell in love, decades before the action begins.  And it ends with a brief scene that gives us the first point of view section of a main character (perhaps the main character).  Again, this is similar to what McDermott and Strout do in their novels, which hop around endlessly in their time sequences.

Ultimately, I think the reviewer just felt the need to make a glancing reference to Tyler’s age.  She’s been writing fine novels for 50 years, and she knows what she’s doing.

I wish I could do it.


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