Storytelling and the art of literary surprise.
It probably a good idea to start with the movies, but we will move on to books in a moment. My reason to start with movies is this; it's more likely that you and I share the experience of seeing M. Night Shyamalan's movie, The Sixth Sense, then it is that you and I have both shared the experiencing of reading Atonement by Ian McEwan or Swamplandia! by Karen Russel.
So let's just start with the movies. The Matrix and The Sixth Sense. Old movies by now, but I remember when they were new, and they surprised so many of us. In fact, I would argue that these two films hold some of the best surprises in movie history because of the kind of surprises they present. They were bold. These were no ordinary surprises. These were not simple plot twists, or a discovery of the killer's true identity. Nope, these were like a good magician's trick. They did not simply pull the rug out from under your feet; they pulled reality out from beneath you!
I still remember the moment the moment in the Matrix when Neo (Keanu Reeves) was suddenly flushed down the drain pipes. I still remember the moment that I realized what Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) truly was. The chills. The moment when I was both elated at this revelation and confronted by the fact that the evidence had been there- in my face- the whole time.
But Matrix and The Sixth Sense are movies, created by companies with huge budgets and astounding special effects; can the same be accomplished in a book? Well sure! And, in some ways, books can be more insidious. Take these two cases: (warning spoilers!): Ian McEwan's literary triumph, Atonement, and the lesser known (although quite amazing) Swamplandia!, a contemporary fiction novel by Karen Russel.
Books can trick us by using unreliable narrative and ambiguous genre. They play with these questions:
Can I trust what I'm reading here?
And what am I reading here?
By manipulating these elements, authors can spin us until we are dizzy.
Atonement was a big enough deal that there was a movie made from it, and on the surface, it presents the story of doomed lovers in WW2 era Britain. Beautiful writing, rich characters, and a real sense of that era, but like the Matrix, Atonement conceals a brilliant surprise; it makes great use of unreliable narrative. Most of the book is the "true story", but one part, a significantly vital section, has been written by a character within the book, and it's not all true. In fact, that untrue section is the main character's "atonement", her attempt to redress something terrible that she has done. Sound complicated? Well it's not any more complicated than the Matrix movie. We, the audience, discover that part of the story is not true. In the case of the Matrix, it was events that transpire in virtual reality. In Atonement, it's not virtual reality but a virtual story tucked inside a "realistic" story.
Swamplandia! uses a different kind of tension, that of genre ambiguity. There's a lot going on in Swamplandia!, actually, but the biggest story arc involves a young girl who is either: going on a spiritual journey into the land of the dead with the mysterious "Birdman", or maybe she's being kidnapped by a sick weirdo. It becomes and stays unclear for a lot of the book, and such was the power of the tension that, based on my background as a reader, I was not sure what I was reading. Early on, Swamplandia! hints (from the girl's point of view) that ghosts are real in this world, but troublesome hints start to push as in the opposite direction. What's real? Am I reading a ghost story or is this just a bad event filtered through the eyes of teenaged girl with dark obsessions? Were they going to find the land of the dead or was she going to be killed out there in the swamp? The simple act of not knowing what it is that I'm reading kept me on the edge of my seat.
Both these books gave that wonderful of surprise and engagement. And these kind of surprises, the power to shift the underpinnings of the world, bring me back to being that kid in the movie theater. That moment in the dark. The chills and the revelation.