Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Puzzle Literature: A Querry

I have a question.  I'd like to list examples of a genre I shall call (for want of a better term), "puzzle literature".  I will define puzzle literature as literature whose narrative essence is a puzzle: which is to say, which can't be understood on a surface level (what Jews refer to as pshot) without unraveling various mysteries.  I want to refer to it not as a genre (since I don't think it has the social support and interlocking influence networks of a genre) but as a mode: a type of writing different writers can use, occasionally or regularly.

I shall take as my twin holotypes (yes, yes, I know you can't have more than one, feh) for the mode Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire and Gene Wolfe Book of the New Sun.  (Both authors write in that mode repeatedly, but those are my favorite examples.)  The most basic facts about the plots of each book — who is Kinbote (is he Botkin? Shade wearing a disguise? A real king? A madman actually named Kinbote?) in the case of Pale Fire; the nature of multiple basic events in the plot in the case of Book of the New Sun — are not only up for grabs, but are not remotely clarified.

Narrative games are a commonality here, as are games and jokes of other sorts. Unreliable narrators are another, although not all unreliable narrators qualify (I wouldn't say that Ford Maddox Ford's A Good Soldier qualifies, for instance.)

To further clarify my definition, let me list some things that it is quite specifically not.
• It is not mysteries, that is, works which present conundrums as part of their plot but which then overtly and clearly solve them.  So not Dickens, and not Agatha Christie.
• It is not works which are, in a sentence localized-way, hard to parse, or thematically/symbolically rich.  Ulysses is, as Joyce famously said, sufficiently full of puzzles that it will capture a generation of scholars; but the basic narrative is more or less clear.  That's not what I mean.  (This is presumably the category which is going to be hardest to distinguish from puzzle literature; but I think it is different.)
• Similarly, puzzle literature tends not to be extremely difficult on a sentence-by-sentence level; the puzzles are larger. So not Finnegans Wake, and probably not The Sound and the Fury either, although I am less sure about that one (does Faulkner count? I dunno.)
• In some sense, one can use the reading protocols of puzzle literature on anything.  James Kugel, in effect, argues that "scripture" as a textual category is created by treating a text as puzzle literature, so that minor inconsistencies become theological, require unraveling, etc.  It creates rich readings. But I am talking about books (presumptively although not necessary post-Gutenberg ones, with identifiable authors) which are written to be puzzle literature.

That hopefully clarified, my question: can we list works of puzzle literature beyond the basic holotypes?  Who else writes in this mode, whether occasionally or routinely?

I am also interested in some related questions:
• Are there writers who work in puzzle mode only sometimes?  (Do Wolfe and/or Nabokov ever not work in that mode? Could one tell, since once one is expecting it it tends to dominate reading?)
• Are their works of other forms that are in puzzle mode? (Some candidates: the films of Shane Caruth (Primer, Upstream Color) and Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Prestige, Inception). Alan Moore's comics come close, but I think ultimately fall into the Ulysses category: thematically rich with lots of decipherable puzzles, but there is no basic question as to what happens in them).
• Are there any good critical essays/books about this topic (including, presumably, better names for this category than I am using)?

So: thoughts?

Update: I posted this on my Facebook page as a public post; much discussion ensued, so if you're interested you can read the comments here.  But let me also add some of the clarifications/emendations I made in that discussion to this post. So:
• I should stress that whether or not something is puzzle literature is not an evaluative judgment. I do love both Nabokov and Wolfe; but to say a work is or is not puzzle literature is not, in my mind, to praise it. (I actually go back and forth on the whole notion, which is one reason I asked the question.)
• (in response to some suggestions)  I don't think either difficulty of the text, nor ambiguity about the story, nor the unreliability of the narrator counts. What distinguishes VN/GW for me is that there are puzzles in the work, and ones that touch on the fundamental nature of the narrative. Puzzles: meaning there are pretty clear and definitive answers. But puzzles, meaning also you can read the book, even several times, and NOT get it (and some, doubtlessly, we still don't get). It's different than ambiguity or difficulty. (One further example: the name of the narrator in "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" is never given. It was several years, I believe, before ANYONE figured it out. Most people didn't even SEE that it was a puzzle! But once you see it, it is SO obvious that it is hard to imagine that anyone ever did NOT see it.)
Two possible criteria that might help clarify: to count, the puzzle must be missable: that is, it's not something that anyone who's read the book (seen the movie) would get; but the puzzle must also be solveable, that is to say, it's not simply an ambiguity that can be read multiple ways. Maybe that'll help.
Another one that I think clearly fits: Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves. 

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