In our post on Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Jenny and I both remarked on how confusing we thought the plot was. In the comments, CB James remarked that this kind of confusion has become common in crime fiction and that it doesn’t bother him (or at least didn’t in this book). That got me to thinking, and following James’s suggestion that some of our thoughts about Smilla were worthy of a full post, I decided to pull the idea out, kick it around a little, and see what others think.
I agree with James that a lot of crime fiction is confusing, and I can think of times when it didn’t bother me at all. In the case of Smilla, the confusion just added to my frustration with other elements. However, when a book has great characters or a compelling atmosphere, I don’t mind so much if I don’t know what’s going on. It’s not crime fiction, but Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter is a pleasure because of its characters; even on a second reading, I couldn’t make heads or tails of some of the politics, but it didn’t matter. In Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is for Witching seems deliberately confusing; readers are not supposed to know what’s going on, even after finishing the book. But the writing style and the ambiguity itself make the book compelling. In the world of theatre, Sleep No More is designed to keep the audience on its toes; it’s not even possible to see the whole thing, much less put all the pieces together. The atmosphere, however, makes it a stunning experience.
So it’s true that I can enjoy a book without being able follow the plot. I can even lavish such a book with praise. But there has to be something else there for me to enjoy, and I have to be confident that there is deliberation behind the confusion. If I’m not confident that the author knows what’s going on—or at least is aware of the different possibilities—then I’m less likely to be satisfied. (See, for example, the difference in my reactions to White Is for Witching and There Is No Year by Blake Butler, the latter of which I was a little skeptical about in the end precisely because I suspected that the author was throwing stuff in because it was cool, not because it was meaningful.)
Although I can get past some confusion in fiction, I usually do prefer to be able to follow the plot, to know what’s going on from one moment to the next. In my reply to James, I noted that this preference might be why I often prefer psychological crime novels to whodunits. In the former, you might be inside one killer’s mind; in the latter, you might have a large cast of suspects to keep straight. The potential for confusion tends to be greater in the latter. Thrillers that rely on surprise often leave me cold because the plots have to get convoluted to keep readers guessing. I’d rather be less surprised than to be handed twists that make no sense.
What do you think? How important is it for you to be able to follow the plot? Are there times when you don’t mind being confused? Are there certain kinds of confusion that you can’t stand?