What is perhaps most admirable about the thriller genre is its unwavering devotion to the Almighty Plot. Things are going to happen, damn it, whether we are ready for them or not. Chekhov famously insisted that if a gun is introduced in a story, it must go off. James Patterson might update the rule as such: if an illicit arms deal is set up, it must be botched, an unknown third-party must be tipped off, and the s.o.b.’s responsible must pay for it with blood. In either case, closure must be achieved and expectations must be satisfied. For the thriller reader, unanswered questions are lepers to be banished. A loose end is the unseemly uncle to be covertly photo-shopped out of the family portrait.
After all, while thriller readers may want to travel to another world that bares only the most superficial of resemblances to our own, we also want to return from it. To do this, we must be properly guided through a compelling and plausible (that is, plausible within the world of the particular story) sequence of events, and eventually be deposited back where we began, all questions answered. Uncertainty, to the extent it is allowed in a thriller, is primarily a plot device. We are uncertain who sent the ransom note, but you better believe we’ll find out.
In literary fiction, however, uncertainty is coveted like your neighbor’s better-manicured lawn. Answers? Don’t insult us. We readers desperately need to not know things. We don’t mind if plot has to wait in the car while characterization, theme, and irony conduct business inside, because we like to speculate on everything that’s happening. Please, put us to work.
Take Herman Melville’s classically stymieing “Bartleby, The Scrivener,” for instance. The title character “prefers not” to do his job, or leave the business once he is fired, or sleep, or live at all. As readers, we aren’t offered a definitive reason for this unusual behavior, and therefore we come up with our own explanations for him: it’s an existential crisis; it’s the extreme dehumanizing effects of capitalism; it was a bad ham sandwich he ate for lunch. We could do this all day. Hell, we’ve been doing it for over 150 years and we’re not even tired.
So uncertainty, or mystery, holds very different offices for literary fiction and for thrillers. To illustrate this, look at two types of mystery stories: mysteries of events, and mysteries of situation. In the first, an event has occurred—a murder, robbery, disappearance—which sets off a chain of subsequent events, and the novel ultimately moves toward the disclosure of what caused the event, who, and presumably why. Airport bookstores are littered with these mysteries, and a quick sweep of the local movie listings will reveal their film counterparts. Take, for example, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. A girl goes missing, and the protagonist is called in to help solve the mystery. From there, the plot slaloms toward a climax, which arises from the revelation of the original mystery. The moment we find out who is responsible for the girl’s initial disappearance, we are already prepared for a final showdown. No funny stuff, no allegories. Keep your looming unknowns to yourself.
Make no mistake, there is a very specific art involved in crafting such intricate yarns. Contrary to what some might believe, they do not just write themselves. However, the problem with popular mystery novels like these is that, at some point, the mystery needs to be solved. Once this happens, the reader almost immediately loses interest in the story (unless the revelation is accompanied by a car chase, gun fight, or sex scene—an especially talented author might give us all three—which holds our attention only for so long). If, though, the mystery does not get solved, the reader becomes frustrated; we feel that we’ve been cheated out of a resolution, and we type nasty things on the author’s Amazon page. Of course, when a simple solution is promised, a simple solution must be delivered. Ambiguity, the literary writer’s trusty old friend, doesn’t play much into popular fiction. Sure, there may be moments of moral ambiguity with respect to a character (e.g. was he a bad guy for kidnapping that bus full of orphans or just a victim of his own abusive childhood?), but on the whole, popular fiction must make good on what it promises: cold, hard answers. Until the sequel.
Readers ponder more what we are not told than what we are. This is for the very simple reason that when we are given an answer to a question, we no longer have to figure it out for ourselves. Because of this, popular mysteries, or mysteries of events, tend not to “haunt” us in the way mysteries of situation can. In this type of mystery, the events of the story are set into motion as a result of a setting or milieu that is inexplicably off-kilter. Because there is no single cause for the mystery, the expectation of a tidy, single solution is never aroused. No breach of contract can be claimed. Instead of asking “who is responsible for all this stuff that’s happening?” we ask “what exactly is all this stuff that’s happening?” The author’s task is not to give us an answer, but to give us enough evidence to apply our own. Therefore, the reader might be less illuminated by the solution to the mystery than by what their interpretation of that solution says about themselves.
One purveyor of such mysteries is novelist and short story writer Steven Millhauser, whose settings are tinted with an unmistakable and sometimes unsettling offness. Unlike in conventional mysteries, the cause for this effect remains unspoken. In the short story “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman” (from the collection Dangerous Laughter), a very different kind of “missing person” story is told. We see not the kidnapping or escape, but the literal dissolution of a young woman inside a locked apartment. If no one person is the culprit, then where does the blame lie? This is a strange scenario, but we readers intone that the strangeness arises not from an aberrant central character, nor absurd series of events, but rather from a world that looks like, but is not, ours. “But what is the meaning of all of this?” asks the thriller reader who has taken a wrong turn and ended up in a Millhauser short story. But Millhauser, like your deaf great-grandmother, offers no reply.
Or does he? In the prefatory author’s note to his 2011 collection, We Others, Millhauser offers a Bartleby-esque sentiment: “What makes a story bad, or good, or better than good, can be explained and understood up to a point, but only up to a point. What’s seductive is mysterious and can never be known. I prefer to leave it at that.”
That’s what I prefer, too.
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