Friday, October 17, 2008

Feeding the Kitty

Schrodinger’s Cat is an existential conundrum advanced by the German physicist, Erwin Schrodinger, to demonstrate the dual nature of matter. This duality provides an excellent bridge to the nature of story; it is a more literary-related way of looking at the famed Frank R. Stockton short story “The Lady or the Tiger,” which itself becomes an illustration of the role played by choice in fiction. The Stockton story, which could have triggered the notion for Schrodinger, provides the main character a choice that must be made.

The Schrodinger’s Cat scenario imagines that a cat is locked in a box, along with a radioactive atom that is connected to a vial containing cyanide. If the atom decays—and it surely will over time--it will open the vial. The cat, inhaling the cyanide fumes, will be killed.

When the box is closed the observer does not know if the atom has decayed or not. This means that the atom can be in both the decayed state and the non-decayed state at the same time. Therefore, the cat is both dead and alive at the same time - which clearly does not happen in classical physics.

The parallel between the cat and a given story is waiting to be drawn, so let’s draw it. When asked to list vital constituents of a dramatic incident (story), writers will supply such ingredients as character—“How can you have a story without character?”—and such other elements as plot, suspense, and reversal (a change in the protagonist's or antagonist's fortune or commanding position). It is the rare, thoughtful professional who will add one of the key qualities inherent in the fiction of the twenty-first century, which is ambiguity (Will she, won't she? Does he, doesn't he?

If we imagine story and Schrodinger’s cat to reside on opposing sides of the equal sign, we can “see” the power of ambiguity in story. Fiction with the built-in element of duality provides an opening for reader participation, that condition where the reader feels not only close to the characters and events but immersed in the outcome as well.

Since about 1950, endings—conclusions, or payoffs—in fiction, particularly in the short form, have tended to move away from the highly visual, seemingly inescapable conclusion of the pulps and slick magazines, drifting toward uncertainty, opaqueness, and choice. Some of this tendency can be related to the uncertainty of the times. Short stories, since about the time of John O'Hara and John Cheever, have ended on an ironic note of dialog or alluded to an impending event, or left you with the feeling that one or more of the characters was on the cusp of having to make a decision without sufficient information to carry forward. This last set of circumstances is much of a piece with life, one possible explanation for the term "slice of life" tacked on to such narratives. These opaque, New Yorker-type stories that leave us so vexed (and yet somehow aware of the resonant frequency of some emotion) are, in Schrodinger Cat fashion more believable and seemingly more real because of their very ambiguity. In some of the modern short stories, the real payoff, something like the aftertaste of an Altoid mint, comes well after we've finished reading the story, leading me to conclude that this effect is deliberate. A salient feature of the modern story is its life off the page, the outcome being transported forth in the reader's imagination.

A novel has more room to bring things and events and persons together or, conversely, apart; the payoff, still nuanced, is more reflective of change in one or more of the major characters. Modern suspense or mystery novels generally have as part of their ending a killer being brought to justice, but we are often led to wonder what effect this or some other form of justice (No Country for Old Men, anyone?) will have on the characters.

Schrodinger notably used the dramatic device of the cat at risk to illustrate a duality in matter. Opportunists that we are, writers may carry that dramatic device farther along the orbit of dramatic inquiry.

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