There is, at the end of Sofia Coppola’s movie Lost in Translation, a moment of almost jazz-like brilliance which wraps and crowns the previous two hours of subtle implication and nuance with a final delicate and nigh-on perfect touch. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know what I’m talking about. For those who haven’t seen it (and your really should), Lost in Translation tells the story of a strong but unconsummated attraction between two people Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) who are stuck hanging around a Tokyo hotel, alienated from the local culture and dealing badly with their jet-lag. When the time comes for departure, and the attraction remains unconsummated, you think the movie is over – until Bob spots Charlotte in the crowd from his airport limo, jumps out, runs after her, embraces her and whispers something passionately in her ear. A visible release of tension shudders through both of them, they kiss, they say their farewells – properly this time – and walk away. Cue play-out – the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Just Like Honey. Standing ovation for Ms Coppola. It really is a gem.
Point is, you don’t hear what it is Bob says to Charlotte in that scene, nor are you intended to (though a subsequent digitally filtered rendering did crop up on Youtube and sort of spoil things). Coppola gives you space to imagine it for yourself. All you know is that this final act of connection and affection has suddenly made it alright for the two of them go their separate ways. What looked like being a Tragedy of Star-Crossed Love is transmuted with one master-stroke into a Bittersweet Happy Ending. You’ve just watched something simple but quite profound get said – about age and youth, perhaps, about time and loss, separation and fleeting connection, about what can and cannot be transmitted across the distance between two human beings with any degree of success.
Or so I thought.
About a year later, I was on a book tour in the US and talking movies with my media escort. We both struck on Lost in Translation as a brilliant movie, sang in chorus the praises of the actors, the script, the director. But when I laid out my thoughts along the lines of the paragraph above, my media escort looked quite taken back. Oh, he said, I kind of thought they’d get back together again, once they were both back in the States; you know, I thought he was giving her his phone number or his address there…..
It was, and remains, the most forceful reminder I’ve ever had of the limits you face as a storyteller and the risks you take if you plan on using any degree of subtlety in your narrative choices. Your audience has a mind and agenda of its own, and short of nailing everything down with nine inch nails in the glare of a Klieg beam, you will always face the danger that someone simply won’t get what you’re trying to say. Over the last couple of months, complaints among the negative side of the readership response to The Dark Defiles have driven this home to me once more. Feels more like Book 3 of a four or five book sequence, kvetched someone. Loses points for the ambiguous ending, said someone else. I can’t believe that’s it. What happened? And so forth. Even some of the positive reviews talked enthusiastically about the next book, loose ends, where the story would go next.
As they say in the San Fernando valley (or did in my youth, anyway) – Rilly? I mean, RILLY? Ambiguous ending? RILLY?
Look, Black Man ended ambiguously. No argument, it’s a fair cop. I personally have a pretty good idea of what happened beyond that last page, but I deliberately didn’t close it out. I wrote the ending precisely so there could be doubt, because to me both possible outcomes carried the same narrative weight, and whichever way it ended, it said the same things about life, love and loss. Yeah, that was ambiguity. Big time.
The Dark Defiles does not end ambiguously. Honest. Not at all. There’s some space at the end, sure, but what’s going to happen in it is a pretty solidly foreshadowed and foregone conclusion. You don’t get given blow-by-blow chapter and verse, because I figure you’re smart enough to step into that narrative space and figure it out for yourselves, sophisticated enough to enjoy that process for its own sake.
Most readers seem to have done that.
That some didn’t, and more importantly that most of those who didn’t felt somehow short-changed and even angered by the nuance and the space, continues to perplex me.
What’s going on here?
Sometimes, of course, it is the author’s fault. Looking back on Altered Carbon more than a decade and a half after I wrote it, I still regret not making clearer linkage between Reileen Kawahara’s accusation aboard Head in the Clouds that Kovacs is a moral hypocrite and Kovacs’s decision to help Irene Elliott because he wants there to be something clean at the end of all this. It’s not vital to the flow of the narrative that the reader make that connection, of course, the act of kindness does stand alone (though it paints Kovacs a shade more acceptable than I’d ideally like). But linking solidly back would have been better – it would have shown Kovacs’ actions as less than purely selfless, it would have underlined a moral equivalence between Kovacs and Kawahara, and it would have emphasised a bit better just how lost Kovacs really is. So while my media escort’s interpretation of Lost in Translation’s ending was, I think, unjustified, while believing the story isn’t over at the end of The Dark Defiles is, I think, missing several pretty massive narrative points, not catching that sense of moral equivalence between hero and villain in Altered Carbon would be fair enough. (And perhaps that’s why so many readers took so badly against Kovacs when he re-appeared in Broken Angels with that same moral ambivalence writ brutally large.) My bad. Sometimes you just miss a trick.
Thing is, it’s a tightrope act – go too subtle and you risk losing a nuance like the one above, too defined and you end up with prose like the furniture in a fast-food joint and narrative flow like a set of IKEA assembly instructions. I still recall with painful clarity the ending of a bestseller lent to me by my sister years ago, in which an estranged mother and daughter are reconciled in a kitchen scene. The mother has been trying to cook something for them while they talk, and it burns. After putting out the fire together, mother and daughter face each other and mother says (paraphrasing from memory here) Oh dear, perhaps we should just start over again. Daughter replies Yes, I’d like that. Pretty neat scene, really – until the author (or maybe their editor), perhaps panicking about average IQs, felt the need to add the immortal line Neither of them were talking about cooking.
Oh, you don’t fucking say? Really?
Sadly, that’s not an isolated example. Dip into the broad waters of commercial fiction and you’ll bump repeatedly into that same terror of open narrative space, of letting the reader think for themselves. Paragraphs abound with that jerky last sentence sutured on, subtle as Frankenstein surgery, to hammer home the point the text just spent ten finely penned lines carefully implying. One notable horror writer, a firm favourite of mine for many years, has gone so far down this treat-your-readers-as-morons-with-ADD path that I now find his books unreadable. There is no longer any nuance anywhere in the text, no room to breathe and wonder – you’re just herded along from one big narrative signpost to the next; don’t stop, don’t think, just open wide, here comes the next big helping. You end up gagged and bound, stifled by subtitles for the hard-of-thinking. Never mind nuance, never mind thinking for yourself, you’re being entertained here! Get with the programme.
And right there in your hands, reading turns from a textured, open experience full of challenge and invitation to extend yourself – like, say, rock climbing or playing a musical instrument – into a satisfaction-guaranteed sit-back-relax repeat-prescription experiential product, like being strapped into the same rollercoaster ride over and over again.
Mainstream film-making, of course, with its need for massively broad appeal to pay the bills, has had this disease for far, far longer, and that may in fact be where this terror of space in a narrative originated. It’s rare you can go to see a big budget Hollywood movie these days and not emerge feeling that your intelligence has been, well – not just insulted; more like stood up at knifepoint, slapped about, jeered at and robbed of its phone. Wallop! You are done. The sales and marketing twins kick in the door of the artist’s garret with a grin, cuff said artist amiably around the head – and tuck a fat wad of cash in their pilled and threadbare grey cardigan pocket. Keep up the good work, mate, you made Dinsdale very ‘appy wiv this one. But ‘e tole me to mention ‘e is a bit concerned with this ‘ere implication you got creepin’ in instead of just sayin’ stuff, nowhahmean? I’d get that sorted aht if I woz you. Dinsdale don’t like ambiguity.
Should we care? Or is this just a storm in a culture snob’s teacup? After all, what’s wrong with making things easy for people? Not everyone’s clever. Not everybody has the leisure or inclination to dwell musingly on their entertainment. We’re not all chin-stroking arthouse types. People come home tired from work or study or collapse exhausted on the sofa after putting the kids to bed. They don’t want nuance and challenge. They don’t want to extend themselves, as you say. All they want is something easy to digest, right? Some nice starchy junk ennertainment. They carry a myriad heavy burdens in life, these people, burdens they can only fleetingly unload for a couple of hours of R&R here and there, a couple of weeks once or twice a year. Shouldn’t we just be glad they’re reading at all? Shouldn’t we be happy we can make them happy for a while so easily? Plus, well, that wad of cash spends pretty good, doesn’t it? You could get a new cardigan.
What’s wrong with this picture?
What’s wrong, first of all, is that it’s profoundly patronising. It stakes out an immediate Us-and-Them distinction, and one with more than a whiff of class essentialism about it – We, the smart purveyors of your art and entertainment understand that You, the consumers, are just too dumb and/or ignorant and/or lost in your dull little lives to cope with nuance or reflective space in your fiction, let alone actually enjoy that space the way people like us know how to. God, you’ve probably never even heard of Lost in Translation, have you, let alone seen it – too busy glugging down the latest multiplex blockbuster shite. So forth. Why bother with subtlety? Who needs it? Why take the risk?
And right there, we open the classic societal gouge between the artificial distinctions of High Art and Popular Entertainment, and, of course, their respective consumer bases. Right there, what should be an act of communication becomes instead an act of streamlined product supply and thinly-veiled supplier contempt. Keep it full-on and simple, it’s all the proles understand. Save that challenge-and-nuance shit for the high end customers, no-one else wants it. And y’know, I suspect that, at some level, some segment of the consumers on the receiving end of that contempt feel it for exactly what it is, and how they respond is with the shirty, rage-prone neediness of fandom, so commonly on display across the internet. You got me in a corner here – you sold me this shit, you damn well better keep on feeding me exactly what you promised, you better keep me happy.
In the eternal marketing quest to find and deliver the perfect streamlined product, everybody loses.
Worse yet, there’s the core problem with this dynamic – and with the creeping infantilisation at the heart of late-stage capitalism of which it is an off-shoot – it is dangerously self-fulfilling. Tell people they deserve better than having to cut up and cook actual produce to make a meal (when ready meals are so much quicker and easier) and pretty soon they’ll stop doing it. In time, they’ll forget how. Tell people they should never have to wait for an actual meal to assuage their hunger, and pretty soon they’re grazing themselves into obesity. Dining tables disappear from homes, family meal-times evaporate and instant branded junk rushes in to fill the gap. You create your markets from the ground up, with little or no regard for the wider consequences, and you warp people’s expectations to suit. Produce enough braindead multiplex blockbuster shite, market said shite hard enough, and people become conditioned to it. They stop expecting anything else. Train a readership that they should never be left in doubt about anything in a novel, should never have to work anything out, and they’ll lose the taste for doing so. In time, some of them will lose the capacity. And when nuance does occasionally come calling, they’ll likely be pretty pissed off.
And that’s a bad thing.
Just as it’s a bad thing that entire modern populations are growing up alienated from the textured pleasures of cooking and healthy eating, so it’s a bad thing that sampling the nuances and textures of good fiction should become the exclusive preserve of a self-regarding elite, while the broad consumer mass are encouraged not to bother. It’s the wilful destruction of acquired taste to make way for cheap-and-cheerful junk. One of the finest compliments I can have paid to my work is to hear that people have been arguing about my characters’ actions and motivations, trading opinions back and forth, enjoying the ambiguities and the implications. That level of engagement is one of literature’s great rewards, one of the great pleasures the form can deliver for both creator and reader. But when that enjoyment and engagement is replaced with anger and blank incomprehension at the space the author has left for the reader to step into, when we mistake challenge and invitation in our art for failure to deliver on some cast-iron product promise – then something somewhere has gone seriously wrong.
And something valuable is being lost.