Thursday, June 21, 2012

Ambiguity Strikes Back


Ambiguity has become the bored, cranky child, no longer content to fuss in markets while mother is shopping, fussing in story while writers are trying to compose.

The word ambiguity pries open the door to uncertainty, indefiniteness, and inconclusive results, which go a long way toward explanation for some of the short stories in a given issue of The New Yorker.

A banquet buffet has been ordered in anticipation—a key prerequisite of ambiguity—of thirty participants.  Four arrive, a fact that will cause the chef pangs of anguish and frustration.  Who knew there would be only four out of an anticipated thirty?  In this way, anguish and frustration join the glorious possibilities of valence to ambiguity.  Of these four arrivals to the buffet, two are offended because the buffet is prima facie a stern rebuke to the laws of Kosher.  One of the remaining two is a perfervid vegan; the remaining guest is self-conscious about being the first one to cut into an elaborate, two-tier Jell-O mold which is an amazing replica of a Frank Ghery architectural design.

So easy to see how this scenario is fraught with implications and tangents of ambiguity?

For the longest time, story had a ritual-level cargo destined for an anticipated delivery.  Then things began to happen in story in much the same way things happened in art.  Anarchists ran rampant through the traditional forms, brandishing torches and slogan-bearing signs.  “Down with comedic endings.”  In fact, “Down with Endings.”

In an analogy to the way the pointillists wanted the viewer to do some of the work of a painting, post-modernist writers wanted the reader to take some of the work load, supply endings the writer only hinted at.

Who knew?

You knew because you were reading as much as you could get your hands on, foolishly thinking at first that understanding how conventions were evolving would ease your way into publication.  While it was a lovely ride and you do not regret one minute of it (now that it is long past you and in retrospect less ambiguous and frustrating), that was no more a way into publication than any other form of alchemy, which is to say a method of transforming base metals into more precious ones.  The way to turn base stories into precious ones was and has always been a blending, but not of science and mythology or magic or even wistful thinking but rather of individual vision and voice.

 If you didn’t breathe the life and enthusiasm of your own senses into story, you might be following all the directions, might be assembling the equivalent of a bureau or chair you’d purchased at Ikea, but it was doomed to the sameness and standardization of recipes and rules, and what kind of story was that?

Ambiguity is a challenge to end your stories where they seem to you to end rather than where you think convention calls for them to end.  Convention is much like the watermarks you saw on buildings in places such as New Orleans and Miami, showing where the water rose due to a particular flood in a particular year.

Do you want to go on explaining what all that dramatic information (implications) means?  Which seems sharper, the sense that although this is a story, it could nevertheless be happening right now, or Life is tricky enough without having to stop at every turn to figure out what it wants?

Of course there is a third option, which says in effect that neither life nor story can be figured out, so you might just as well go for the emotional bang at the end that provides the most enjoyment.

If you are striving for neither too much, nor too little, what seems the more attractive (and don’t say “entertainment.”)?

Entertainment. 

Okay, that means someone in the story learns something, which turns out to be whatever it is you’ll have learned from having written the story.

Interesting analogy:  During World War II, Navajo “Code Talkers” were used to send messages encrypted in the Navajo language, thus to foil enemy interception and interpretation.

Story is code for life experiences, encrypted in a language of irony and ambiguity, then directed at readers.

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