Don’t Tell Them Everything
Good books have an inner life; you can’t see all the way in. The pages become windows that throw light onto landscapes and into rooms, but keep some secrets hidden from view. Perhaps they reveal more at second glance – perhaps they leave the reader to deduce more.
The reader certainly doesn’t need to know everything, and we like to feel that there’s more to discover. There’s a reason why JK Rowling created the bluntly named Pottermore, to fulfil that need in children. But some novels actively defy understanding. Frank Baker’s ‘The Birds’ never explains the cause of the drama. Joan Lindsey’s ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ famously had its final chapter excised to create more mystery. Sometimes we like to try and work out the answer for ourselves. Great characters may be unknowable. Part of Anna Karenina stays forever hidden.
In literature you don’t need to explain why two people have fallen in love, although it helps to know why they hate each other. Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’ is one of literature’s longest books at approximately 1,500 pages, but a full quarter of this consists of digressions and mini-essays. Hugo describes the novel thus:
‘The book which the reader has before him at this moment is, from one end to the other, in its entirety and details … a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.’
Not that any explanation entirely deals with Javert’s dogged pursuit of Valjean. It’s clear to us that Javert recognises that the law is immoral as it stands – Valjean’s treatment at its hands has revealed this to him – but he can’t reconcile the truth with his own devotion to the law. Even so, absolving Valjean would have surely assuaged his conscience, while leaving the story with nowhere to go.
Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’ is often described as a perfect novel from the realist school. It’s about the gap between reality and illusion – Emma Bovary wants a romantically ideal life, and is repeatedly let down because either she or her suitor loses interest. Revelatory at the time, the beauty of its language still shines through but it now feels rather soap opera-ish and repetitive because we get it – she’s selfish and spoiled and bored. And yet.
How much should the reader see? Enough to understand the plot, but not enough to fully understand everything about the main character. Recent darker-toned Agatha Christie TV series have managed to make the material fresh because Christie barely put any flesh on her characters’ bones, leaving them open to re-interpretation. It’s harder to ring changes on the great historical novels because they are so precisely written.
When everything is explained away for us, we have nothing to contribute as readers – and the reader should always be allowed to provide a personal take on events. You can read several of my non-crime novels from different angles, an idea I’ve always been drawn to. If you watch TV shows like ‘Ozark’ you’ll find yourself with a spinning moral compass that alters your view on characters.
The writer John Sutherland is fascinated by what we’re not told in literature. He delves into stories to spot the textual lacunae that throw up unanswered questions. Among his books are Is Heathcliff a Murderer? Puzzles in Nineteenth-century Fiction, Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? More Puzzles in Classic Fiction, and Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet? Further Puzzles in Classic Fiction.
Carefully analysing every word of the text, Mr Sutherland alights on inconsistencies and oversights, although he is careful to note that sometimes authors simply forget details. But it’s fun to speculate why there are missing or misplaced moments in novels. Perhaps there’s something is going on below the surface of a book that’s not described, such as his explanation for why Sherlock Holmes mis-addresses Miss Stoner as Miss Roylott in The Adventure of the Speckled Band. To me it’s clearly an editorial slip, but isn’t it fun to speculate?
Life begins and ends in the middle of everything, and this desire to replicate real life informs the choices you find in videogames. But readers like to be told stories, and every new attempt to place choice in the hands of the reader/viewer usually ends badly – as the new interactive episode of Black Mirror once again proves.