Comfortable Ambiguity

keyhole, shoes, Cristian Iohan Ștefănescu

(photo: Cristian Iohan Ștefănescu, Creative Commons license)

A novel should leave “a little room for the reader to interpret, to bring in his or her own perceptions and conceptions,” says Celeste Ng in a recent Glimmer Train essay. Ng’s novel, Everything I Never Told You is one of NPR’s “Great Reads” for 2014 and has been selected by the Amazon editors as the #1 book of the year. Ng’s essay suggests we can look through the keyhole, we can see the pink velvet shoes, but we may never know everything about them, so we fill in the rest of the story to our own pasts, preconceptions, and predilections.

In her “literary thriller,” Ng artfully leaves room for interpretation of the events leading to the disappearance of a family’s daughter. A familiar premise, but “If we know this story, we haven’t seen it yet in American fiction, not until now,” says Alexander Chee in the New York Times, as she turns “the nest of familial resentments into at least four smaller, prickly mysteries full of the secrets the family members won’t share.”

There’s a difference between the deliberate ambiguity Ng advocates—“a space, however small, for the reader to fit into the piece”—and simple confusion. The challenge is to walk the tightrope between answering every question and leaving out important information about character, motivation, or even plot that the reader needs in order to arrive at a reasonable conclusion. As a writer of mystery and thriller stories myself, I am constantly aware of that tightrope and the expectations of readers in this genre.

Discomfort with ambiguity leads to such devices as the flash-forward epilogue “that tells you exactly where everyone ends up and what everything means.” This was my one quibble with the otherwise lovely novel All the Light We Cannot See. Movies do this, too. In general, I find this trick disappointing, because by the time I reach the end of a book or compelling movie, I have a rich array of ideas about the potential future lives of the characters, and the novelist/moviemaker can pick only one of these.



Preoccupation with, you could say, “closure,” may not be simply a response to ambiguity per se, Ng proposes, “but to ambiguity done badly.” If ambiguity results from the writer’s own indecision, she says, then it often doesn’t work. If the writer is relying on readers to sort out the evidence and arrive at a conclusion, “the reader senses that crucial pieces are missing and ends up confused.” When the writer knows how the situation resolves, but simply chooses not to say, like Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, “a modest monument to the bold pursuit of ambiguity,” said poet Brad Leithauser. The ambiguity in that novel has sparked 116 years of speculation, a level of interest that likely wouldn’t have occurred, had James made it perfectly clear whether the governess was delusional.

In the batch of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine stories I reviewed 12/12/14 was one by Joyce Carol Oates (“Equatorial”) in which the timid wife of a much-married man grows to believe he’s trying to kill her. Evidence mounts that he might want to be rid of her. He seems, a time or two, to try. But then he injures himself and the imbalance in physical strength between them tips slightly in her direction. She takes a risk to further even the odds. The story ends as the two sides of this interpersonal equation teeter on the brink. Will he succeed, or will she? The ending is classically ambiguous, and Oates has given sufficient information for readers to plausibly choose either ending.

Everything I Never Told You ends without telling exactly what happens to its characters outside the bounds of the book, and readers ask Ng about them. At first such questions made her worry she’d left out some key bit of information, but then she realized that readers believe they know the characters and are firmly convinced about what happens to them. What they wanted from Ng was “to confirm what ‘really’ happened—because they wanted to be right!—but all of them were already positive that they knew.”

It is these readers’ “intense and comfortable certainty” that shows she left sufficient ambiguity for readers to take hold and give the story their own meaning. “The story is truly finished—and meaning is made—not when the author adds the last period, but when the reader enters the story and fills that little ambiguous space, completing the circuit, letting the power flow through.”

See how she does it!