Monday, February 16, 2015

Tale tweakers - books that twist and shout

[From my Forbes Life column – this one about books with surprise endings]

One barrier to discussing a good twist-in-the-tale narrative is that you can’t properly describe its effect without spoiling it for the reader. I anticipate that difficulty arising in this column, so let me first indulge myself by mentioning one of my favourite such stories, which you won’t easily find in print nowadays.

Stanley Ellin’s “The Question My Son Asked”, published in the mid-1960s, is narrated by a state executioner, a man who initially seems defensive about his profession but is really quite proud of himself. Unimpressed by anti-capital punishment arguments, he believes that anyone who commits a heinous crime no longer qualifies as human and must be destroyed the way a rabid animal would be. And of course, someone has to do the dirty work – to pull the switch for the electric chair. But the executioner now finds that his own son doesn’t want to continue in the family line. They talk about ethics, the son asks a provocative question, and the narrator, after hedging for a while, admits that it isn’t just a matter of social consciousness – he enjoys the power that comes with holding someone’s life in his hands and watching the electric current jerk a still-living body around.

What is impressive here is how the story initially seems to be about one thing and then becomes something else; how our view of the protagonist changes; how the tone goes from sombre, almost melancholy, to dark and macabre, and does this without undermining the more philosophical elements in the narrative.

The tweak in the tale is a tricky thing to do well – it can often be a gimmick, aimed at giving the reader a quick shiver at the expense of inner logic. But there have been many books and stories where surprise endings (or mid-narrative surprises) are central to the story’s purpose. Serious literary fiction has sometimes hinged on major revelations: in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, the young,
lovelorn narrator Nathan learns relatively late in the story about the terrible choice offered to Sophie, a Holocaust survivor, when she was in the concentration camp, and our feelings about the characters’ inner struggles and destinies are affected by this disclosure. And Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani, about the lives of a group of second-generation Asian “rudeboys” in London, ends with a surprise that overturns all our assumptions about the narrator’s identity.

Some of the best sources of good twists are anthologies in the noir and science-fiction genres. The many gems in the collection The Best American Noir of the Century (edited by James Ellroy) include Harlan Ellison’s riveting, novella-length “Mefisto in Onyx”, about a man blessed (or cursed) with the ability to “jaunt” into the minds of other people. To his dismay, an old friend asks him to scan the mental “landscape” of a convicted serial killer, whom she believes to be innocent, and the story climaxes with a fascinating game of one-upmanship and one surprise following on the heels of another. Another personal favourite is The Other Side of the Sky, an Arthur C Clarke collection that includes the celebrated “The Nine Billion Names of God” (one of the subtlest end-of-the-world stories ever written) and “The Star” (about the end of another world, not ours, with a shiver-inducing final sentence). Or for a wider range of sci-fi authors, try the Brian Aldiss-edited A Science Fiction Omnibus, which includes Bertram Chandler’s “The Cage”, a sobering tale that provides a sharp, cynical answer to the question “How do you know a species is capable of rational thought?”, and Ted Chiang’s beautiful “Story of Your Life”, about a woman who experiences the past, present and future simultaneously.

Roald Dahl is one of the acknowledged masters of the story-ending frisson, and The Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl is the best primer to his work. My favourites here include “Pig” (young boy raised by his great-aunt to be strictly vegetarian must go out into the
big bad world after her death), “The Great Automatic Grammatizator” (a frightening cautionary tale about mass-production in literature, which seems even more relevant today!) and “The Wish”, a tense story about a little boy inventing a game to be played on a colourful carpet in his house: he has to cross to the other side by avoiding the reds (which represent fiery coals) and the blacks (which are poisonous serpents). Dahl’s achievement here is that by the end, the carpet’s dangers are as real to the reader as they are to the boy.

Ira Levin was not as prolific as Dahl, but he was described as “the Swiss watchmaker of suspense novels” by none less than Stephen King. It’s a good analogy, for Levin’s novels are masterpieces of construction. Since they are thrillers which can be read in a couple of hours, highbrow critics don’t think of them as “serious literature” – but it’s only when you try putting yourself in the author’s position that you realize the rigour and ingenuity involved. Most of his books accumulate little details and surround one major surprise with a few minor ones.

Consider the structure of Levin’s brilliant A Kiss Before Dying. The first section of the book is about the carrying out of a murderous scheme, and throughout we are privy to the ticking of the killer’s mind, his paranoid inner state. Yet here’s the rub: we never learn his name, and the implications of this emerge in the next segment of the narrative, where the focus shifts to another character who starts a private investigation into the murder. She encounters a few suspects, but the reader is now flummoxed: it is possible that the killer is one of the men she meets, but we have no way of knowing who it is. So ingenious is the change in perspective that a character whom we knew intimately in the first section of the book is now a stranger to us. This is the set-up for the novel’s major disclosure, which occurs mid-narrative.

I’ll finish by mentioning an iconic murder mystery and a book about that mystery. Agatha Christie is often downgraded today as a writer whose work centered too much on neatly packaged solutions, but she was an expert plotter, a quality that is too often
underestimated. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, her best-known novel, the revelation of the murderer was a shock to the system for first-time readers. But perhaps a tribute to that book’s influence is that, decades later, a psychoanalyst was inspired to write a book-length study claiming that the real murderer was not the person named by Christie. In Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, Pierre Bayard revisits the text of Christie’s book and discovers hidden currents that suggest an alternate solution. In the process, he deconstructs many aspects of the suspense genre itself, implying that the reader, not the author, is the final arbiter of a novel’s “meaning”. That may be the biggest twist of all.

[Some earlier Forbes Life columns: time travellers, doubles, parents, satire, popular science, writers on writing, translations, houses]


  1. The story of “The Question My Son Asked” is extremely similar to a story named "Jallaad" by famous hindi writer Pandey Bechan Sharma "Ugra", have you by any chance read that , its quite discomforting to think that such a celebrated author might have actually ripped off the exact story from a foreign writer to present to an audience who might have had no chance to know anything about the prior existence of the story in a foreign language.

  2. Also the fact that nobody seems to have noticed the similarity .
    A question then arises as to who ripped off whom ? and was it ok back then to plagiarize content to the extent of blatant copying , when the audience is at the disadvantage of not having access to content from different parts of the world ? also that how much of our own literature might have actual origins from published foreign content ?

    here.. read it and see for yourself..
    also through further research I found the culprit to be Stanley Ellin rather than our celebrated hindi writer who went by "Ugra" (he had quite the temper, I found out, and surely would have been ugra-pissed on seeing his work plagiarized), its interesting to think how he might have come across the story seeing that it was published in a hindi monthly.

    1. Dishant: very interesting, thanks. Haven't read the Ugra piece yet, but will try to do so soon - would like to see how close the similarities are in terms of the structure, build-up and focal points of the two stories (because if the similarity is only one of a conversation about capital punishment and its capacity to excite the bestial impulses of people, then that is a relatively generic subject, which I imagine has been covered many time in literature). Any idea when the Hindi story was published?

  4. Dishant - I inferred that Stanley might have copied it , from the fact that Ugra died in 1967, with majority of his work getting published in and after the late 30s , in various monthlies that were published during that time, while Ellin himself published this work in the late 60s after a stint in the military. Well I'm just guessing here.

  5. Great article, Jai.

    - I have had a love hate relationship with twist endings and surprises and have grown more and more wary of them over time. I strongly believe that a story should be able to stand on its own merit and the rule of writing which stated "save the best for the last" was not intended solely for introducing twists and surprises. I have had a tough time coming up with a criteria for good or bad for twists. It sometimes works and sometimes doesn't (just like the habit of leaving an important question unanswered in a story for the interpretation of the viewer. Sometimes works, sometimes feels like a desperate cop out as it did in Memento).

    - Some other Agatha Christie novels which have messed around with the template are Pale Horse, Murder on the Orient Express and of course, Curtains. I have found her regular works to be far better which sticks to her strength - creating a right set up / location / situation for the murder mystery. A similar writer who made the twist work really well was the superb debut by Keigo Higashino (Devotion of suspect X).

    - Interesting to note the comment by Stephen king. He used a similar device in his novel "Dead Zone" where a part of the novel centers around catching a serial killer. That part is alternately divided into chapters describing the police investigations and chapters in first person by the killer himself.

  6. I absolutely love books with twist endings and twists throughout the story that throw you around. One great book that I would highly recommend for this is The Seventh Holy Man from William Brazzel. Total unpredictable and exciting until the last. A fantastic sci-fi with very well developed themes and a real mind bender.
    Definitely in my top 3 from 2014.

  7. Thank you for this blogpost. I got 'The Best of American Noir' out of the library and have been having so much fun!

  8. So did you happen to read the story by Ugra and find the unnerving similarity.

    1. Not yet - have it on my to-do list, but lots of other things to get done first.