June 22, 2010

The Inexplicable, the Mysterious

One of the things we’re trying to do when we write is to explain the inexplicable and the mysterious. We’re trying to figure out what damaged us in the past or what exactly was going on when this thing happened or why someone would do such a horrible thing. We’re trying to explicate it and figure it out and explain it. And some things are really hard to explain and communicate ~ they’re subtle and nuanced and complex. It’s hard to first figure out what’s going on and then explain it and also be aware of your reader and try to calculate how much they will know, hence what needs to be explained and what needs to be implied or taken for granted.

I recently read Nicole Kraus’s wonderful story “The Young Painters” in the New Yorker, and I was struck by the climax moment of the story. A secondary character makes a gesture to the main character ~ he lays two fingers alongside the protagonist’s cheek. Nicole never explains to us exactly what the gesture means, and we are left to interpret.

Which made me think about all the ways fiction pulls back and leaves it all to the imagination. Fiction by its very nature cannot encompass the whole of lived experience. There’s just too much. Too many details, emotions, too much stuff in life. Figuring out what to tell and what to leave out is part of the art. I would argue that nonfiction does the same thing and so is also subjective and never objective.

But some of the best fiction doesn’t explain everything, even when it could. It leaves ambiguity in the story and gives the reader credit for her intelligence and purposefully leaves things open. It leaves gaps for readers to fill. Far from being sloppy, it is a very effective device, though it’s hard to do, and some readers will be frustrated that you didn’t lay it out for them. So it’s a calculated risk.

But I was thinking of all the wonderful examples of pulling back, leaving gaps, cutting short. Kraus’s story. A lot of William Kittredge’s stories also have this. I was thinking about the end of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. He doesn’t continue till the protagonist dies. No. He leaves him there, shot through on a battlefield, but if you really want to, as a reader, you can believe a miracle occurs and he lives. Or you can look at the evidence of the situation and realize that he’s going to die. However, the way Hemingway does it is so artful.

So some of the art of writing is purposefully leaving gaps ~ big gaps ~ for the reader to fill. Mysteries that aren’t solved all the way. Achieving closure without resolution. This is especially true for New Yorker stories. So hard, but when it’s done well, it opens a story out in a way that it stays with you for days.

What I'm Reading Today: My friend Pembroke Sinclair's novel Coming from Nowhere. A great scifi! We're reading it for book club.

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