Friday, May 8, 2009

Ambiguity: The definite maybe

ambiguity--a vagueness of meaning or outcome; uncertain attributions of meaning and/or quality; dramatic conditions in which the intent of characters and consequential resolutions are uncertain.

Ambiguity hovers over much twenty-first century short fiction and, to a slightly lesser extent, the novel in much the same way the June marine layer visits the California Coast of an evening. Everyone in the neighborhood is aware of a presence, often a thick, gloomy presence, other times merely dense enough to obfuscate immediate details. Truth is, things--details--can and do gt lost in there, leaving the reader to speculate. Thus one of the unspoken goals of modern fiction--keeping the reader closely enough involved to speculate on the ways things could turn out and, later, on the way things actually did turn out.

One recurrent theme in short and longform fiction is the possibility of mischief in the interpretation of one character of the intent or behavior of another. Another recurrent theme is the fact that long-term relationships are just as vulnerable to this mischief as the exchanges of information among recently introduced characters.

A significant existential question of the human condition has always been: "But what does it mean?" The modern writer asks that question with some frequency, invariably in italics to emphasize the implied intensity. This is not a carte blanche for the writer to steer away from definitions or from resolutions, but rather a nudge to remind the writer of the irony inherent in overemphasis; the more characters insist on openness and clarity, the more suspicious they become. A useful trope to help the twenty-first-century writer grasp the importance of ambiguity in a story is found in the character who asks, possibly of the Fates, possibly of him or herself, "But what do I mean?"

Some helpful guidelines may be found on a first-come--first-served basis in the stories of William Trevor, Alice Munro, Charles d'Ambrosio, Tobias Wolff, Francine Prose, Lorrie Moore. As much as it is possible for characters to know who they are and what they want, the characters of these writers have some answers. Not to forget that the reasons for liking characters have become increasingly more--well, ambiguous.

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