Here’s an interesting writerly problem. Do books, plays, artworks and films have more longevity if they defy meaning? I’ve written far too many smart stories with neat plots, but the ones everyone remembers most are the ones without a simple explanation.
In London at the moment, there are several good examples of art that avoids explanation. An exhibition of Bruce Nauman’s work provokes responses without telling you what his artworks are about. Meanwhile, Harold Pinter’s ‘Old Times’ alternates Kristin Scott Thomas and Lia Williams in a psychodrama that has everyone scratching their heads and loving the sensation of not understanding a thing about what it means.
Famously, when Joan Lindsay wrote ‘Picnic At Hanging Rock’ over one month in Australia, her original draft included a final chapter in which the mystery was resolved. At her editor’s suggestion, she removed it prior to publication. Chapter Eighteen was published posthumously in 1987 as ‘The Secret oOf Hanging Rock’, but the original book is better without the ending. I attended the UK premiere of the film, and at the party aftwards we were greeted by the missing schoolgirls in their outfits, which was most disconcerting.
So, is it better not to reveal anything? Remember the Bermuda Triangle? A book was published that resolved the entire matter, pointing out errors in accounts and flight logs, and showing how something mysterious could be entirely explained by a little careful fact-checking. The book did not sell. We like something to remain unresolved. It’s the key to the success of ‘2001’. ‘What does it mean?’ becomes an appealing question, although there’s frustration in the films of David Lynch.
Kenneth Tynan said ‘You dopn’t need to understand why two people love each other, you just have to know that they do’. Crime novels are perhaps immune to a lack of resolution, but it’s tempting to try one. Famous ‘unresolved’ examples from fiction, anyone?