Friday, July 29, 2016

Ambiguities Abound (and Can Astound)

By Art Taylor

Back in 2012, Janet Hutchings asked me to help inaugurate "Something Is Going to Happen," the blog for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. My post was the third for the blog, the first guest post actually (first post not penned by Janet herself), and as soon as she asked me to contribute, I knew exactly what I wanted to talk about: endings that purposefully, strategically perch themselves on the edge of something else that is going to happen—somewhere in the blank space beyond the final lines of the story. You can find that post here.

This week's question here at Criminal Minds—"How do you feel about ambiguous endings?"—inevitably overlaps with my topic at the EQMM blog, and in fact several of the stories and novels I talked about there could be termed ambiguous endings while others might not. For example, David Dean's magnificent story "Ibrahim's Eyes" (June 2007; listen to the podcast here) stops just short of the final actions of the story—the fallout from a poignant, breathtaking decision—but there's little doubt about what will follow, even if we readers don't see it firsthand, in scene. In contrast, Stanley Ellin's "The Moment of Decision" also ends at that moment of decision but even a few moments sooner in this case—with the decision itself unclear and the reader left to imagine both the choice made and the potential fallouts in all cases. (I've taught this story several times in my classes at Mason, and it always provokes interesting discussion: critical reading of the story and the characters to sort out what exactly is happening in the final scene, to argue about the choice that should be made, to imagine the various outcomes of several possibilities.) 

The former here, Dean's story, is not an ambiguous ending; the latter, very deliberately, is—but I'd argue that each story is ultimately not only exciting but also fulfilling. (And not to get too teacherly about it, but I'd also argue that the withheld ending to "Moment of Decision" doesn't matter to the narrative arc of the story, which is fully completed by the final sentence.) 

Several of Ellin's stories revel in ambiguous endings; he's truly the master of them, and two of his stories—"The Moment of Decision" and "Unreasonable Doubt"—are included in Otto Penzler's great anthology Uncertain Endings: The World's Greatest Unsolved Mystery Stories.  That second story also purposefully and with wicked glee cheats readers (and a listener!) out of the ending to a story, and another of Ellin's stories, "The House Party," ends with a twist that seems to clarify what's happening, even as it pushes readers deeper into other questions, about whether (for example) the main character is in hell or in a mental institution or.... This is another I've taught often, and students really get a kick out of tracking down evidence for several different ways to understand the story. 

As other of my Criminal Mind compadres have pointed out this week, there's a difference between an ambiguous ending that seems to enrich a reader's enjoyment and engagement with a story and one that leaves a reader dissatisfied or frustrated.

From my all-too-brief descriptions of the Ellin stories above, it's clear that I find them enjoyable and engaging, but I should also point out that there are always students who disagree with that assessment, even after we've finished our discussions on how the stories work, their strategies, their endgames (that latter word meant in a couple of senses). Inevitably someone will feel cheated, angry even, and nothing can change their minds about those feelings and assessments. 

Part of this may surely reside in reader expectations and values, attitudes toward genre, and really the specifics of subgenre. Several of the posts this week have talked about the desire to have the criminal discovered and justice served—no ambiguity on either count—and readers of the traditional mystery expect that sense of resolution and satisfaction—even, I might argue, that happy ending, not just the crime solved but the troubles resolved and order restored. Ambiguity in those types of stories can be frustrating. And even in works where true order doesn't fully triumph (justice can be thwarted in so many ways, and societal injustices always persist beyond the solution of individual crimes), there's still some sense of resolution, with the reader at least knowing the truth of the matter.

Ambiguous endings, meanwhile, may work best in different kinds of stories—noir tales, for example, or more general suspense—where reader expectations are different, where the sense of being thrilled and unsettled may ultimately outweigh the need to have equilibrium restored.

One book that has always proved controversial here, especially in terms of genre expectations and provocative endings, is Tana French's In the Woods. In many ways, French's first novel is a police procedural, and in that genre, we anticipate that the police will find the criminal and shepherd him or her into the justice system, whether or not that system ultimately carries through with proper prosecution of the crimes in question. This does happen at the end of the novel: a young girl is killed, an investigation ensues, and the truth does come to light, though the aftermath of those revelations prove complex.

However, the book also has another mystery—with one of the police detectives revisiting his own childhood, the disappearance (never solved) of two of his friends, and his own brief disappearance at the same time, memories of which he's never been able to access. While the novel's primary mystery is solved, the detective's engagement with and understanding of his own story becomes more complicated, and many readers have expressed frustration and even anger with an ending that seems to cheat them of satisfaction. (I emphasize that word seems because it can be argued that the story is complete, just as it stands.) 

In the Woods was a very popular book, so I'm certain that others would (and maybe will) weigh in here with their thoughts on it. While I would argue steadfastly in defense of the novel's ending (as I did in my review here at the Washington Post), my goal isn't to discount opposing views. On the contrary, I would use the validity of each side of the argument to a different purpose: The book's ability to leave people talking about it, passionate about their feelings, speaks to its success on a different level and speaks directly to the power of the ambiguous ending when used purposefully and strategically. Circling back to the Ellin stories I've taught in class, those discussions may well prove the weight and substance of the stories—their ability to spark readers to think, to explore, to argue.

I think any of us might feel lucky to have readers engaged with our writing on those many levels. 


In other news, a quick mention of some events ahead for early August—which seems a particularly busy one for me, not only on the road but on the screen as well! 

Next week, I'll be reading with my wife, Tara Laskowski, in Chicago as part of the Wit Rabbit Reading Series, co-curated by a good friend from our MFA days at George Mason University. The reading is Tuesday, August 2, at Quencher's Saloon, 2401 N. Western Avenue, at 7 p.m. The Facebook page for the event is here

Later that week, North Carolina Bookwatch on UNC-TV airs an episode where I talk with host D.G. Martin about On the Road with Del & Louise. Our interview premieres on Friday, August 5, at 8 p.m. on UNC-TV's affiliate stations, with encore performances on Sunday, August 7, at noon, and Thursday, August 11, at 5 p.m. See the North Carolina Bookwatch website for more information and for links to interviews with other fine N.C. authors. (A link to my episode online will be there after broadcast too.)

Then the following week, I'll be taking part in two events: a panel discussion on Thursday, August 11, with mystery writers Con Lehane, G.M. Malliet, and Collen Shogan at the Ellen Coolidge Burke Library in Alexandria, VA, and the all-day Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival on Saturday, August 13, along with a fine slate of writers; check out that website for the full list of participants and programs.

Hope to see people there—and at other events down the road as well!


RJ Harlick said...

Terrific post, Art. I knew you would come up with some good examples. I'm afraid my befuddled mind couldn't think of a one, other than Shakespeare.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Robin! I thought the whole week's conversation was a terrific one, with great points throughout--and I think your post hit the nail on the head about the thin line between those aspects of an unfinished or ambiguous ending that leave your mind working happily and others that leave you shaking your head in a different way. Appreciate the comment here!

Keenan Powell said...

I didn't think IN THE WOODS was ambiguous. The solution was subtle. I liked that book so much that after I listened to it on audio, I bought it in hardback. If you reread the beginning and then look at the end, all the clues are there to solve that older mystery. Martin Edwards wrote a short story that was published in Ellery Queen a couple of months ago which was like that. The stories that stick with me are like that: where the reader's mind is engaged. But to each his own, I suppose.

Art Taylor said...

Hi, Keenan — Thanks for chiming in, but sorry I've been slow to respond! Interesting take on the older mystery, which I still don't think I understand (not what happened to the children). I don't feel like it's unsatisfying narratively speaking, but I couldn't begin to articulate or explain what happened. In the meantime, I'll look up that Martin Edwards story. I'm behind on my EQMM a little (sadly!) but the stack is always close by. :-)