On doing ambiguity well and badly

“[A]ll too often, ambiguity in fiction is not the writer’s attempt to leave space for the reader—it’s the result of the writer’s own indecision. Sometimes one of my students will bring a story to workshop that leaves the others scratching their heads. Did the woman and man get back together, or not? Was the cat that showed up at the end the same as the cat at the beginning? ‘I didn’t want to explain too much,’ the student will often say in the story’s defense. ‘I wanted it to be ambiguous.’

“When asked, these students generally admit that they don’t know, themselves, whether the couple gets back together, or what the deal with the cat is. So they hedge their bets, refusing to give enough evidence one way or another, crossing their fingers that the reader will figure it out and decide for them. Usually, that uncertainty carries over into the story. The reader senses that crucial pieces are missing and ends up confused.”

—Celeste Ng in this essay

I wanted to quote this whole piece. It’s both interesting and frustrating. Like me, Ng is excited about Brad Leithauser’s box and keyhole theory, but whereas I’m more interested in playing with the two models, she’s more interested in applying the keyhole model critically.

The students Ng describes are treating their fiction like a box of toys they can arrange and rearrange at their godlike whim. If the box model is a valid one for writers to use (and I think it is), why doesn’t this approach work?

As someone who has been one of those students in the past, and probably will be again, I’m tempted to say the problem is with the readers. That’s not really right, though. I think the problem is the writers’ inattention to their audience.

Fiction written with the box model in mind should not be arbitrary. It should be like a magic trick. The audience knows it’s a trick; they’re even familiar with the materials being used (hat, coin, handkerchief). But they’re willing to believe that something strange and marvelous is going on, that a quarter can pass through cloth and hide in a child’s ear. The arbitrary manipulations of the trick aren’t just there for their own sake, they exist to create a “magic” whose logic is dreamlike in its persuasiveness.

Short story: “While the Women Are Sleeping”

“While the Women Are Sleeping,” by Javier Marías, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

7,660 words

Appeared in the New Yorker on November 2nd, 2009 (online here); read on Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast

So I have a new tag, concealing and revealing the Medusa, to tag stories where there’s a lot of tension generated by getting the reader to believe in something that can never be fully revealed on the page. The horror is too horrifying, the Eden is too Edenic, whatever. I was getting ready to apply that tag when I realized no, it doesn’t fit. This story does reveal its Medusa, and like all naked Medusas, it’s slightly disappointing. Murder! Murder is a letdown, somehow. Domestic violence, violence against an attractive woman, is a letdown. We’ve seen it all before. The sense that madmen walk among us, that murderers let their secrets slip out while their victims are sleeping, isn’t especially new either.

I still adore this story though.

On human baseness

“As dreadful as things looked, I was still alive. And, perhaps, the last thing to die in a man is his baseness. His ability to respond to peroxide blondes and the need to write.”

—the narrator of Pushkin Hills, by Sergei Dovlatov, translated from the Russian by Katherine Dovlatov, as quoted here

Short story: “The Nightmare Lights of Mars”

“The Nightmare Lights of Mars,” by Brian Trent

4,198 words

Featured in episode 415 of Escape Pod, September 27th, 2013

There are a lot of things to like about this story, but it just doesn’t hold together. (Forgive the bullet points; my thoughts don’t hold together well either.)

  • The ending is awesome.
  • It also comes out of nowhere. Why are the bugs so smart?
  • The opening is very big and dramatic, the main character almost dies, and then it has almost nothing to do with the rest of the story. I think it’s supposed to show how lonely Clarissa is, how badly she needs her paintings, but it felt overdone to me.
  • Clarissa’s wife is a selfish, abusive jerk with no redeeming qualities. I don’t see how their relationship adds anything to the story. It feels like a device to make Clarissa more sympathetic.
  • The paintings are a nice bit of characterization.
  • But they have no significant connection to the plot and they don’t really fit thematically either.
  • The first exchange between Clarissa and Vijay goes on longer than it needs to. At this point, we don’t yet know she has hard evidence, which makes for a bit of false suspense. Why would she withhold that information? Why would she let Vijay disbelieve her to the point that she gets angry and frustrated? This could be character development, but it feels like conflict by numbers.
  • Also, I didn’t catch on at that point that Vijay was in denial. So his reaction to seeing the bugs struck me as way over the top.
  • It doesn’t help that I never got a visceral feel for how terrible the giant bug discovery was. I felt kind of detached about the whole thing.
  • I had the same reaction to Clarissa’s mental state at the very end. Afterwards, I realized it was the effect of the gold light, but until I got that context, I actually found the keening and sobbing and self-injury sort of funny. (I know, I’m sick.)
  • It’s nice to see a portrayal of a same-gender couple (and an Indian guy) without it being a big deal.
  • The description of the ants is pretty cool.

Anyway, I think this story would be better if it kept the pure-horror feel of the ending all the way through, and if it were unified by some kind of theme. Like Clarissa’s sense that she keeps getting lured into bad situations, or something.

On Olympian detachment

“What intrigued me most about Pushkin was his Olympian detachment. His willingness to accept and express any point of view…. Like the moon, illuminating the way for prey and predator both.”

—the narrator of Pushkin Hills, by Sergei Dovlatov, translated from the Russian by Katherine Dovlatov, as quoted here

On conviction

Conviction is an aspect of communication, so we need to define it from both sides. On the writer’s side, conviction is a sense of commitment to the fictional events. On the reader’s side, conviction is what makes the story feel true.

On the reader’s side, conviction seems to be an impersonal form of trust. It can exist even when the reader distrusts the writer, the fictional narrator, the editor, the translator.

Real-life plausibility is one manifestation of conviction, but conviction is not incompatible with fantastic events or unlikely coincidences.

Realistic human psychology is one manifestation of conviction, but conviction is not incompatible with broad, flat, cartoonish characters. (See Charles Dickens.)

Continuity is one manifestation of conviction, but conviction is not incompatible with bad continuity. (See the Sherlock Holmes stories. Arthur Conan Doyle famously gave Watson two different names and a wandering war wound.)

Vividness is one manifestation of conviction, but conviction is not incompatible with a sense of dryness, distance, and sterility. (I sense conviction in Henry James, for example, although plenty of people will argue with me.)

Short story: “Strawberries”

“Strawberries,” by J. Robert Lennon

? words

Read here on Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast

This is such a neat exercise in point of view.

An apt review of The Double: A Petersburg Poem

“I can easily imagine Dostoevsky thinking ‘I’m going to write about Job, but not a righteous and admirable Job—rather, a miserable worm of an official with no redeeming qualities, someone who merely thinks he’s admirable, and I’m going to make the reader interested in him and his fate anyway.’”

—languagehat, here


“‘It would have been a great deal better if it had all been just nothing,’ he kept incessantly thinking to himself. ‘Indeed, such a mysterious business was utterly improbable. In the first place, it was nonsense, and secondly it could not happen. Most likely it was imagination, or something else happened, and not what really did happen; or perhaps I went myself … and somehow mistook myself for some one else … in short, it’s an utterly impossible thing.’”

The Double, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, as translated by Constance Garnett

On overvaluing work because of the effort involved

“One ought not to attach most importance to those studies which give one a great deal of trouble, and which nevertheless are not so pleasing as the pictures which are the result and fruit of those studies, and which one paints as if in a dream, without nearly so much trouble.”

—Vincent Van Gogh (in a letter translated by Anthony M. Ludovici via Margarete Mauthner and found online here)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 122 other followers