Essays > Published on March 21st, 2014

Consider This: Undecidability

Whether you’re making music or films or painting pictures… play to the strengths of your medium. 

One of the aspects of written narrative I appreciate most is the ambiguity that’s possible and sustainable before the true nature of a fictional situation is confirmed.  Like the roadster in The Great Gatsby which is green or yellow, depending on the moment, I love to keep the details of a story in flux.  One thing morphs into becoming another, sometimes even a third thing.

My classic example comes from the story "Guts."  Whatever is holding the narrator underwater, first it’s a snake, then a sea serpent, then it’s a prolapsed colon, finally it’s a “thick rope of veins and twisted guts.”  This gradual evolution from the fantastic to the horribly real is something films have less success depicting.  There are good examples.  In A Portrait of Jennie Joseph Cotton gradually realizes his girlfriend is dead.  A ghost.  In Jacob’s Ladder Tim Robbins slowly comes to terms with the fact that he is, himself, dead.  But too often the ambiguous thing must be made real in order to be filmed, and that robs it of the power of being debatable, undecidable.  So often, once we see the monster, it’s no longer scary.

The unresolved “thing” will always carry more power and create more tension.  In the story "Romance," is the girl performing a brilliant political gesture, or is she stoned, or is she brain damaged?  By refusing to confirm one answer, I force the narrator to take a stand:  The only thing he’s sure of is his love, and he resolves to act according to that. 

In a way, I’d like to think this is what Soren Kierkegaard considered the “leap of faith.”  In the face of conflicting plausible possibilities, we must choose the one that we sense is true.  I could argue that all reality is debatable, and that it’s more powerful to show a character taking a stance based on his or her faith, than discovering the one “true” path of reality.

So often, once we see the monster, it’s no longer scary.  The unresolved “thing” will always carry more power and create more tension.

Sometimes the protagonist never discovers the truth.  Rosebud is a sled.  But even in Citizen Kane, the seekers never find the answer.  The audience is left more enlightened than the characters.

Such is the case in the story "Cannibal."  The main character never does realize what he’s actually doing.  No, to him, what he swallows is “a salt-flavored jellybean” or it’s “the last olive bumping around in a jar of boiling-hot olive water.”  Let’s see a film depict that.  If you can create the epiphany in your reader’s mind, while leaving the lead character naïve, that’s a wonderful feeling. 

In the story "Zombies," the narrator says, “It’s suicide but it’s not.”  Such a statement acts like a Zen koan, sinking into the reader’s brain like a fishhook.  The undecidable is irresistible.    

Again, my advice is to use the ambiguity that fiction allows in a story.  And not just the changeable nature of objects – for example, in the story "Loser," where the narrator is offered a “Dracula box” which turns out to be a grandfather clock.  Beyond defining and redefining objects, exploit larger social issues that are unresolved in our culture.

Abortion makes a regular appearance in my work because — in the overall culture — it veers back and forth between being a simple medical outpatient procedure or being premeditated murder.  From Marla’s pillow talk in Fight Club, to the cost of Marcia Saunder’s abortion in "Loser," to the sister’s abortion at the end of "Guts," to the thwarted abortion in "Romance" and the serial abortions in "Cannibal," it’s a perennial symbol in my work.  There’s an old trope that a good piece of writing should include birth and death, and with abortion you get the sense of both.  It’s ordinary but it’s horrible, and that undecided quality gives it huge power at this point in history.

Bear with me.  I’m going a little deeper, straight into French Deconstructionist philosophy and Jacque Derrida.  According to him our culture functions as a binary, either/or system of opposites.  Things must be either good or bad.  Alive or dead.  And we’re horrified when something falls between two options.  The zombie was his favorite example.  It looks and behaves as if it’s alive, but it’s actually dead, soulless and seemingly inhuman.  Our only way to resolve it is to “kill” it.  Likewise, the vampire, the Golem, and Frankenstein’s monster.  They’ve all got to be confirmed as dead.  Pinocchio, in contrast must be made alive.

Another of Derrida’s favorite metaphors was the virus.  It’s neither alive nor dead in any way we can understand.  But it still effects its environment, generating disorder.  It reproduces itself by destroying life, just like a zombie.

Me?  I love the tension of such an oxymoron.  A paradox.  My original goal was to write books with paradoxical two-word titles:  Fight Club, Invisible Monsters, Unnatural Disasters (Editor's Note: This became Survivor).  The second word would clash with the first:  A fight is about conflict, but a club is about kinship.  At its core is the ethical question about what level of consensual violence is permissible.  Likewise, in Snuff should someone be allowed to engage in sex that might prove fatal?  And in Tell-All, at what point do you lose ownership of your own life story?

The current popularity of the zombie and vampire genres would seem to prove my point.  The undecidable thing is fascinating, creates tension, and will hold audience attention until it’s resolved.

Other examples?  Consider the 1963 film The Haunting, based on the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House.  It’s never resolved whether or not the main character, Eleanor, is being menaced by ghosts or if she’s merely insane.  Or maybe telekinetic and insane.  In an interview, Jackson said her character, Eleanor Lance, was sane, but it’s the plastic ambiguity that keeps the story alive over decades.

Be careful.  I’m not telling you to piss off your reader with vagueness.  If you depict physical action and setting — carefully and with specificity —‚ your audience will tolerate the irresolvable core of the story.  Also, within the story you can depict characters’ reactions to the situation without stating definitively what the reality is.  In "Romance," when the friends say Brittany is retarded… they might be wrong or jealous.  This reality wiggle room is also why we never see the devil’s baby in Rosemary’s Baby or Gwyneth Paltrow’s severed head in Seven.  That horrible baby and the cut-off head linger in our memory because they’re unresolved.

Look at Wittgenstein’s duck/rabbit or the optical illusion of the old hag/young girl on the paperback cover of Invisible Monsters.  Now, as homework, look at your favorite stories, movies, or pictures and identify which of them creates tension by dealing with a culturally unresolved issue.  Consider the first time we see Daisy Buchanan in Gatsby.  At first she’s aloft on a white balloon, but that settles to the floor and becomes a sofa.  Or, in the film Alien, the monster retains its power because every time we see it, it’s morphed into a new form with new dangers:  the egg, the face hugger, the chest burster, the alien.

Now, find more examples of stories that use ambiguous, undecidable elements to create tension and linger in the culture.

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About the author

Chuck Palahniuk is author of the novels Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, Lullaby, Diary, Haunted, Rant, Snuff,  Pygmy, Tell-All, DamnedDoomed, and the upcoming Beautiful You. He also has two non-fiction books, the Portland travel memoir Fugitives & Refugees and the collection of true stories, essays, and interviews, Stranger Than Fiction.

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