The Limits of Narrative

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In a post on The Guardian (UK), books writer Alison Flood writes about the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series of books and how she would skip ahead to find out whether a prospective choice “led to the treasure in the cave or a horrible death, escape from the dungeon or a watery doom.”

She calls this cheating, but defends the practice. After all, it is called “Choose Your Own Adventure,” not “Make a Choice and Suffer the Consequences.” Perhaps it teaches kids to mistrust authors, but I’d say that’s not a bad lesson to learn. It could form part of a foundation for healthy skepticism, which is an essential reading skill. And if it leads readers into a habit of peeking at the endings of more substantial books, I’d say that’s simply a challenge for writers to make the reading so involving and pleasurable that the reader, rather than skipping ahead, doesn’t want the book to end.

As for the ability to peek ahead, one wishes that the members of the Bush Administration could have somehow done this before starting a war in Iraq. Then, faced with the choice of, say, whether or not to disband the defeated Iraqi army, they might have been informed in advance: “Sorry, your choice has led to anarchy, looting, a huge pool of unemployed, frustrated and armed men who will do pretty much anything for money, and the ingredients for years of factional conflict.” Hmm, better not do it then. Oops, too late!

Great literary novels make skipping ahead irrelevant — but only if you are willing to suspend appreciation of the basic plot in favor of a book’s other virtures. (Cf. Peanuts: Lucy: “What are you reading?” Linus: “Anna Karenina.” Lucy, leaving the room: “She dies in the end.” Linus: “Aauugghhh!”) One’s appreciation for, say, The Savage Detectives isn’t spoiled by the fact that the author never informs us of the ultimate fate of its main character, Arturo Belano. And yet the reader’s moral judgment of the Belano character hangs on the final glimpse of him, and on his choice — foolish, or grace-filled? — to go with some Liberian soldiers to what the narrator describes as certain death. It’s almost as if Belano had his own Choose Your Own Adventures book, which was really his life, and makes an existentialist’s choice to embrace his own fate. He could anticipate the “ending,” which would be disastrous when seen from a certain point of view (including that of the narrator of the section) but essential from his own.

Let’s say there are two kinds of readers: One kind, like Alison Flood, Linus, and the narrator of the African section of TSD, is concerned with avoiding risk. These are the same kinds of people for whom the warning “SPOILERS!” was invented. If they know Anna Karenina dies in the end — and who, picking up the novel for the first time, is not aware of its heroine’s fate? — it not only colors their appreciation of the book but might even make them avoid it. The other kind of reader is willing to take the whole work as a sort of multi-course meal that works (in a great book) on many levels, so that a narrative ending, a resolution to the plot — the dessert, if you will — is an almost unnecessary indulgence.

When “The Sopranos” ended its run, many viewers protested that the final episode’s sudden blackout at a seemingly random moment in a quotidian family dinner scene represented either a failure of nerve on the part of the producers and writers or a nose-thumbing at viewers (while industry pros loved it.) Pressed on the matter, series auteur David Chase simply kept mum. Those who demanded to know what the ending represented, and “what happened” to the characters after the blackout, had already missed the point. The series ended, despite the “Don’t stop” pleas on the soundtrack, because the characters had been developed as much as they could be.

In The Savage Detectives, the main characters Belano and Lima actually pass from one kind of reader to the other. In January 1976 they are obsessed with “what happened” to Cesaréa Tinajero, and they don’t stop til they find her. I think the reason this sequence is presented as the book’s ending — although the main characters’ lives for the next twenty years are also accounted for, out of order with this sequence — is that the action is rooted in the urge to find the answer, to see the story through to the ending, to uncover the mystery. It’s almost as if Bolaño is saying, to the characters and readers both, you want to see your mystery solved, fine. Here it is. But chronologically, after they return from Sonora, they no longer get to be characters in an action movie. The whole idea of neat endings, of plot arcs, of resolutions, goes out the window. Belano and Lima’s lives become more aimless, impossible to explain, and sloppy — which is to say, more real — while their characters continue to develop. It’s when their characters can’t develop any more (Lima completely defeated by life, Belano disappearing into the jungle having made his final, fateful choice) that even chronological time ends for the characters.


Mark Pritchard is the author of the novel How They Scored and the collections of sex stories "Too Beautiful" and "How I Adore You." He lives in San Francisco. More from this author →