Ambiguity

by wjw on January 29, 2014

Back in September, friend of the blog Marcus Geduld posted a long, thoughtful essay in response to an essay I wrote about Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go.  That essay was my response to a literary writer turning to a science fiction trope, and necessarily involved theorizing about the differences between literary fiction and genre.

Among the many intelligent comments Marcus made had to do with ambiguity, which literary works tolerate more than does genre.  I’ve been thinking about this ever since, though not from the point of view of a critic or theoretician, but from the point of view of a writer.

Human beings live in a pea-soup fog of ambiguity.  The present is complex, the past forms the present but you can’t change it, and the future is hard to discern.  And humans are emotional animals whose desires and needs can blind them to aspects of reality that may be perfectly obvious to anyone else.

“Does she love me as much as I love her?”

“Is Iran deceiving the US in the current negotiations over nuclear weapons?”

“Was it Professor Plum in the library with the pipe wrench?”

“What will the weather be like in two weeks?”

People may well confront these sorts of questions, then find the answers ambiguous or inadequate.  This doesn’t mean the answers aren’t there, it just means they’re unknown to the person who’s asking the question.  The issue isn’t the ambiguous nature of reality, the issue is one of information, and who has it.

In reality, things are one thing or another.  Either your partner’s love is as intense as yours, or it isn’t.  Either Iran is deceptive or it isn’t.  Either Plum killed the victim or he didn’t.  You may not know the answer, but the answer actually exists.  Ambiguity in this case isn’t about human nature, it’s about access to information.

(There may not actually be an answer to what the weather will be like in two weeks, due to the chaotic nature of weather phenomena.  All a meteorologist can give you is a degree of probability.  So if your fictional character is confused over what the weather will be on his wedding day in two weeks, it’s a perfectly reasonable sort of confusion.)

If you’re a writer creating a fictional milieu, you can toss your protagonist into an ambiguous situation— and in fact it’s good for the drama if you do— but as creator you are in effect the God of this world, and you know the answers, or at least you should.  Your character can go through fifty-seven kinds of Heinz hell trying to find the answers to her problem, but you should know the answers yourself.  You should know what Iran and Professor Plum and the anvil clouds are all up to as far as your fictional universe goes.  If not— if your own confusion is a mirror of your character’s— then you risk having your book be about nothing.

Because writing is about point of view.  If you don’t have one, if you don’t have the answers at least to your own little secondary world, your fictional endeavor takes on the quality of futility.  “I don’t know the answers, so I’m going to write a book about it.”  Yeah thanks, I could have not found the answers without you.

Your protagonist can battle against his ambiguous situation, or not.  He can find the answers, or not find any answers at all, or find the wrong answers, or find the answers and misinterpret them.  All of these approaches will produce a different kind of story, and they’re all valid.

Sometimes the answers to questions seem not to actually exist.  “Is there a God?” “What is the meaning of life?”  “Do I possess free will?”  In this case, your characters can find an answer that’s good for them.  Or for you.  Or, well, not.

And then there’s the situation when your character gets all the answers, and then decides not to act on them, and that’s a whole other kind of story.  (And PS: Your character is Hamlet.)

There is also the situation in which your character is in an ambiguous situation— because we all are, pretty much— but doesn’t perceive any ambiguity at all.  Your character seems to see everything clearly, sees everything black or white, on or off, good or evil— then then acts on these judgments.  Generally this doesn’t end well in real life, but in fiction this often produces a happy ending.  Go figure.

Lastly, there’s the situation in which the character has all the necessary information, but simply refuses to believe it because of those pesky human wants and needs.  The character actually produces ambiguity where there isn’t any.  “No,” a rational person might well say, “he doesn’t love me, and he’s proved that over and over.”

But, your character might well respond, absolutely need him to love me, and I will act on that assumption until I am proved right, and waste days and months and maybe even years of life and hope and yearning because I NEED NEED NEED NEED and I can’t help it and I can’t stop!

Again, this doesn’t produce happy results in real life, for all that it seems to work well enough for Disney princesses.

Ambiguity is a feature of the human condition.  Ambiguity is a condition that a fictional character should have to deal with.  But in the author’s mind, the answers should be there, at least for the work in question.  Because otherwise, there are just too many people wandering around in the dark without any idea of how they got there, and I can do all that on my own.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave Bishop January 30, 2014 at 12:54 pm

Yes, from a reader’s point of view ambiguity, in a piece of fiction, can often be intriguing and add to the entertainment value of the piece. But I too hope that the author is able to resolve the ambiguity – at least if he wants to!

Sean Craven February 3, 2014 at 5:08 pm

This is too good to ignore. It’s also very useful. I was recently discussing fiction with a friend. “It’s become obvious that the creation of story is an inescapably moral act, one that reveals you to the reader as clearly as an X-ray of your ethics.”

My friend gave me a look.

“My current theory-of-fiction started at Taos, and is rooted in the notion that a story is a beginning and an end that have an interesting relationship with one another, connected by an unbroken chain of consequence,” I said.

“Ooooh,” he said. “The consequences.” You can’t tell a story without showing your observations and ideals, your basic notions of how you think life works or how you wish it worked or both.

Literature overlaps with fiction in certain areas, the way painting overlaps with picture-making. But picture-making isn’t necessary for painting, and it isn’t restricted to painting. I read the more out-there literary stuff in much the same spirit as I read scientific papers, Asian poetry, and packaging. I don’t expect the satisfactions of fiction. I’m happy to wander a blind fog with the author if the fog is described in a compelling fashion and I enjoy the company. Of course, that’s no substitute for a story when a story is desired.

Interestingly, bad fiction, fiction that reveals a flawed perspective on the workings of life, can give me a lot of pleasure. I’ve read the atrocious Captain Blood by Michael Blodgett, more times than I’ve read many books I admire, in order to dissect the messed-up POV of its author… Your Disney-level stuff, where it’s obviously wrong for obvious reasons, is just irritating rather than enlightening or amusing.

I’ve been working on an essay on this subject, and now I have to think more.

Sean Craven February 3, 2014 at 5:27 pm

Sorry to bob up and down, but it just struck me. I’m reading The Woman Lit By Fireflies by Jim Harrison, and I’ve been mentally comparing it to my current novel. (Almost done, waiting on the last two readers.) My first novel was very much a literary novel. The current one, not so much. And this Harrison book is definitely literature. I blamed my prose while I was working, but while Harrison’s writing is terrific, it isn’t so much better than mine that it would make that serious a difference. And while he tells stories, so far his plots are rudimentary, simple, and motivated by crime — the narratives could be executed as sleazy noir short fiction easily. But he uses those simple, explicable stories to highlight social and moral ambiguities, and the characters are never in a position that seems certain or entirely comprehensible to them.

On the other hand, the last book I read that I fell in love with was Secret Cities by Italo Calvino, and that is an exercise in calculated obscurity. If you were to grade works on how ‘literary’ they are (we really need better terminology for this discussion), it would place way, way over Harrison’s stuff. But I could very easily sympathize with a reader who loved Harrison and was left cold by Calvino. And I could see how someone could suggest that Harrison’s work is derived as much from crime fiction as from his poetry and memoir. Ponder ponder.

Phil Koop February 24, 2014 at 9:18 pm

Yes! Let there be no ambiguity in the minds of writers about their own works! But it is seldom a good thing for the clarity in the mind of a writer to result in a similarly clear and unambiguous story. That’s a bit scary for a writer, for we readers can be a dull and unsubtle lot, and we’ll sometimes read you in ways that disappoint or even appall you. But for a story to be really interesting it must place some burden of interpretation on the reader.

Perhaps my favorite of all your characters is Gredel/Sula; the reason I find her so affecting relates to the sort of ambiguity I am talking about. I don’t mean that the *facts* of Gredel’s story are ambiguous. But what to make of them? Is Gredel evil? After all, she is a murderer, and she committed her crime with premeditation. Yet what she intended was to be closer to a sort of assisted suicide than what occurred; when Caro inconveniently did not die as expected, Gredel was already committed to her plan. But then again, perhaps the supremely gifted and rational Gredel ought to have anticipated this eventuality, and therefore bears the full moral weight of its outcome. Though how great is that weight though really? Was Gredel’s crime really any worse, or even as bad, as the undeserved priviledge systematically arrogated by the Peers? Etc. This is the sort of ambiguity possessed by a good story; it can make you think.

In your original essay you wrote that “In literary fiction, Fate is something you cannot escape.” I would not put it that way; instead, I would say that a tragic literary figure cannot escape her fate because the reasons for her fall are the same as those for her rise. The only real opportunity the tragic figure has to escape her fate is at the very beginning, by foregoing the arc of her future in its entirety. The thing is, I think you have followed this line yourself! I personally view Gredel as a tragic figure – I would never have agreed with Captain Fletcher! – and I think she fits this trope well. I have already suggested that once Gredel transferred Caro’s funds into her own account, the die was cast. The larger picture is that there was no way in the static society of the Praxis for even a genius like Gredel to rise without committing a crime. Yet guilt and the need to conceal her foundational act are what destroy her relationship with Martinez.

wjw February 24, 2014 at 10:29 pm

An excellent and well-reasoned analysis, sir! And a very good point that readers filter the story through their own experience, and/or often read badly, and often make conclusions that the author never intended. (In my case, I’m often credited with insights that I never actually experienced, so this is fine, in my book.)

And also: rereading. Books that I found ambiguous when I was reading them in college, now on rereading seem perfectly obvious. I’ve just had enough life experience to now understand what the author was getting at.

(I remember once reading a description of a lit class as “explaining to a 19-year-old things that would be obvious to a 40-year-old.”)

Using your example, though, I should point out that I as the author knew Gredel’s arc— and the arc for the unwritten nine books that were supposed to follow the first three. So any perceived ambiguity on the part of the reader was actually engineered by me, because I wanted certain ambiguities to exist in the readers’ perceptions.

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