What’s The Point?

Media, Reading & Writing, The Arts


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?

19 comments on “What’s The Point?”

  1. Mike Cane says:

    It really all depends on the telling, doesn’t it?

  2. Jude lemons Hudson says:

    I read a book called “the Miracle of Catfish” with an unresolved ending due to the fact that the author died before finishing the last chapter. It’s an American novel, set in the very deep South, and several subplots are at critical junctures when the book just stops. Kind of fun, really, even though not really the kind of example you are seeking.

  3. Bob Low says:

    I see this as a golden opportunity to bang on about the great Robert Aickman, one of the most shamefully neglected writers in the English language, and a master of the ”unresolved”. His stories bear any number of re-readings, and their mysteries almost seem to deepen with time. Oddly enough, I find them perversely satisfying-Mike makes a good point, that a lot is down to the ”telling” of a tale, and Aickman’s stories are beautifully, and very carefully written You are left with the unnerving feeling that Aickman was writing about life as he actually experienced it- full of enigmatic ”intrusions” from other incomprehensible realms He could also be quite waspishly funny. Another writer whose short fiction is genuinely is enigmatic Bentley Little-I can never understand how his novels can be so formulaic and contrived, when his short stories are so original, and quite dementedly surreal. They seem to come straight out of his sub-conscious. The ending of ”Kill List” was pure Bentley Little.

  4. Simon Sperring says:

    The Quincunx by Charles Palliser . Although I’m not certain that it was left unresolved or if it was my lack of intellect (or even the pretentiousness of the author perhaps). Either way I loved the book. The same could be said of John Fowles The Magus, which was butchered in celluloid to compound matters.

  5. Bob Low says:

    Simon-John Fowles’ last novel ”A Maggot” is another fascinating puzzle of a novel, made all the more enjoyable by the fact that it’s also a page turner, even though you are never entirely sure exactly what the characters are experiencing. I’ll have to read it again soon, if I can find the time. As for ”The Quincunx”, I loved reading it, got to the final pages, and it dawned on me that I hadn’t the remotest idea how it all fitted together. I think Palliser published a ”solution” a few years later- and an ”alternative solution”, to the same plot!

  6. Bride of Bob says:

    The art world loves an enigma. The “Another Worl” exhibition of Surrealism in Edinburgh in 2010 was such a success it was partially revived to satisfy visitors to a subsequent festival. Surrealism gives rise to curiosity and poses puzzles, why paint a sky with a headless body, bassoon and chair? Throughout history enigmatic art has aroused viewers curiosity for the unexplained. Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” with the distorted image of a skull in the foreground has intrigued viewers for years. Art in all forms lends itself to enigmas and the unexplained.

  7. snowy says:

    The work of fiction that is most often cited is ‘The Lady or the Tiger’ by Frank Richard Stockton. He was badgered into writing a sequel, but managed to avoid revealing the solution.

    But unresolved endings are rife in TV and Film, left as a hook for a sequel, perhaps the best known is ‘The Italian Job’.

    Some forms of unresolved ending only seem to work well in a visual form. ‘Carrie’ appears to be resolved, but in the lost shot this is destroyed. It would difficult to get the some impact in written form. Because they are wordless actions, delivered in silence.

  8. snowy says:

    Robert Fripp recorded a version of both of Stockton’s stories. He got his wife to do the narration, why? who knows? Ith a myth-tery.

  9. glasgow1975 says:

    ha love it Snowy!

  10. Dan Terrell says:

    The Lady or the Tiger is a classic and has become a stock plot for generations of story, radio, tv and movie writers. But what a terric tale and the second was, too; except it was the second time around.

  11. Ken Murray says:

    I think that lyricists probably pull this off better than anybody? Apart from the obvious perpetrators such as Dylan, I’ve always had a soft spot for Alex Harvey. Harvey’s lyrics often appeared to only make sense on some kind of subliminal level. Decades later I’m still trying to workout the ‘meaning’ of Give My Compliments to the Chef. But the reward I think is not in finding an answer but that the search stimulates reflection an debate.

  12. John says:

    I like unresolved endings in movies and books. They can offer a very personal experience for the viewer or reader who can create an ending that satisfies based on their own individual interpretation. But I have seen that modern younger audiences can’t stand them. I read movie reviews at move websites, for example, and can find hundreds of obviously younger viewers infuriated by “confusing” (open-ended or unresolved, that is) endings. Makes them feel stupid, I think, because they so desperately want to have the “correct” ending and have seen the movie the way everyone else has. Never enters their mind that movie watching can be much more rewarding if it’s entirely subjective. It’s the whole group think and group experience way of living that is ruining an entire generation. They are losing the ability to think for themselves.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    No, they’re losing the confidence to own to their own conclusions. They want to be sure theirs match with everyone else’ first.

  14. Vivienne says:

    Last Year at Marienbad – and then, really, anything written by Alain Robbe-Grillet: multi-layered and ambiguous.

  15. Pheeny says:

    That’s a little harsh John, I would argue that just because a narrative is resolved at the end does not mean that it necessarily demands less independent thought on the part of the viewer/reader. An unresolved ending can merely be an indication that the writer has run out of steam and taken the easy way out.

    I suspect most people of whatever age or era prefer clear cut resolved stories – I know I do, if I want confusion and ambiguity I can get all that at home 😉

  16. Dan Terrell says:

    Good point, Pheeny. I have found people can get right annoyed if there isn’t an “end.” And they will ask why such and such went unresolved. They think you either rushed, didn’t keep track of the threads, intend to write another story to resolve it all or “hummmm, you must be one of those who are trying to be artsy…”
    The best short play I’ve ever seen had the several actors storm off the bare stage one by one, so all that remained was the bare wooden floor, the plain backdrop, a naked light bulb – stage center/short cord – which was hanging above a broken rose. Then all the lights went out. The trouble was there hadn’t been a lovers fight. At least not obviously so

  17. Bob Low says:

    Pheeny and Dan-I enjoy a neatly resolved ending to a book or a film if that is appropriate, or fitting for the particular story. In most cases, particularly in genre fiction, a resolution really is needed. However, there are cases where the creator of the work is using the story to say something else, and conventional resolution won’t do it. I think there are also some writers and film-makers who just think in a certain way, and tend to produce work where the reader or viewer has to make a leap of their own. I mentioned Robert Aickman earlier, but another example who springs to mind is the great science fiction writer Gene Wolfe, who delights in providing readers with information, and leaving them to make of it what they will. Some unresolved work, however, is just an indication of the writer running out road. Much as I loved Clive Barker’s Books of Blood on their initial publication, re-readings of some of the stories show up a weakness in the endings-almost as though, after taking the reader on such a wildly imaginative ride, Barker really didn’t know how to round it all out, so decided to leave things ”enigmatic” ie hanging.

  18. Dan Terrell says:

    I also like vignettes in prose. A well-described short piece usually very descriptive and often atmospheric can be a most enjoyable read. These do not have endings, or beginnings, just a captured moment, clear, compact, and filled with natural questions. Ambiguity through explicit detail.
    The danger is that the prose can be overworked and then the work can turn precious.

  19. Helen Martin says:

    Pieces like that are great for a reader to wrap their own story around. If I wake up suddenly I find that I narrate my dreams. That is something else but it might be a cure for sleeplessness. I seem to be full of negative phrasing today; perhaps from being at the dentist. There is always a momentary flick of irritation if there’s no ending but refusing to work one out for yourself is intellectual laziness. Ooh- hyper critical, too. It’s a different type of reading, to feel the threads in your hand and have the power to lay them out as *you* please.

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