Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Two great WTFs of story

Ambiguity and uncertainty are the eighteen-wheel trucks of story, shaking all the other elements in their slipstream. You think not? Have a look at the outcome of your favorites in the novel or short form. You see any guarantees of certainty? Wiggle room abounds even in plot-driven stuff. And this is as it ought to be; we're all hard-wired to root for the underdog; our secret ballots are already mailed in, marked for the long shot. We want privilege and certainty to get either an outright comeuppance or at least an A-ticket on the rides of humiliation.


The former, ambiguity, says nothing is as it seems, a corollary we bring in from classes in Reality; the latter, uncertainty, says we're not always sure about how the things that are supposed to work out will in fact work out. Ambiguity. Rick is a good guy and all, but that's not a warranty that he'll be able to shrug off the latest offer of a bribe. "Don't assume I'm crooked," Samuel Spade tells us in The Maltese Falcon. How are we supposed to react when we've just learned that he's not only been messing around with his partner's wife, she mistakenly believes Spade killed Miles Archer so that he could be with her all the way. Maybe that's a bit of a stretch, a hard-edged example, but how many of us are pellucid, the light of honesty and openness radiating through us.

The latter, uncertainty, allows us to wonder who in our midst or in the ensemble of any cast of characters will break from patter, having taken all he or she could, wanting to make a statement or perhaps a break with the past. You can still read Theodore White's first volume in his Making of the President series and believe Adlai Stevenson is going to best Dwight Eisenhower. You can watch a rerun of the famed Orson Welles film, The Third Man, and think Anna Schmidt is going to walk off arm in arm with Holly Martins instead of walking right on past him. Dream on. Life is filled with enough uncertainties to make us recognize it when we see it in fiction.

We in fact love to argue about the way an event might have ended other than the way it ended, if--for instance--Al Gore had won the Bush v. Gore decision and the Florida votes would have continued to be counted. No trillion-dollar tab for Afghanistan and Iraq. No outrageous list of dead servicepersons and civilians. No neocon revisionist history memes and tropes being played out in VFW and American Legion halls all across the country. We might have been somebody, a contender instead of a punch drunk palooka.

Robert Burns nailed it:


But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Things--particularly things that can't go wrong, say oil rig things--can and do go wrong, and even though they can do considerable damage in reality when they do, there is no gainsaying that things in story go the wrongest of all.

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