Two Kinds of Ambiguity

Mom,

Can we talk about ambiguity? Maybe we can, maybe we can’t.  OK, I think that’s out of my system. 

So, when I read your post, I started to do some googling around to look for other examples of children’s books with ambiguous endings.  Turns out: people hate ambiguous endings. Or at least, internet goers who made the top of my google search do.  Which is not necessarily surprising to me, but still strange–I myself love ambiguous endings, and have never read any of the sequels to The Giver for specifically that reason.  So no, I haven’t read Son.  It has been getting a lot of buzz, so I suppose I may read it at some point, but not for now.  Instead, I’ll talk about a few other books with ambiguous endings.

The first one that came to mind for me was Terry Trueman’s Stuck In Neutral, which as you know is about Shawn, a boy with severe cerebral palsy and ends just before his father may or may not kill him to “put him out of his misery.”  I read Stuck in Neutral for the first time in the early part of this year and absolutely loved it, right down to the ambiguous ending, which I thought was 1) necessary, since Shawn is the narrator and 2) completely appropriate, because it forced the reader to think more deeply about what we think about Shawn’s father and how that impression would change depending on what he decides.  And then, lo and behold, just a few months ago, Trueman came out with a sequel, called Life Happens Next*.  I haven’t read it yet, but I know from the publisher’s copy that Shawn is still alive, so that pretty much answers that. 

I actually had a chance to interview Trueman earlier this year, and I asked him about this very issue, of whether a sequel “ruined the ending” of Stuck in Neutral, and this is what he had to say:

Well, it doesn’t matter much if an ending is ruined if no one is reading the book anymore. And while Stuck in Neutral has continued to sell reasonably well, it definitely dropped off some in recent years with the rush away from realistic fiction. Also, I feel that Life Happens Next, the sequel, extends and expands Shawn’s story in good ways and will help bring audience back to Stuck in Neutral rather than “ruin” anything. It was actually my editor Antonia Markiet’s admonition that I couldn’t write a sequel and I hope it shows some level of the respect I had and still have for her that I waited 12 years to try it.

Now, I don’t actually agree with Trueman that people are not reading Stuck In Neutral anymore–it still has that shiny Printz sticker on it and gets plenty of circs at my library.  But I think he is edging close to the argument I would make about Life Happens Next, The Giver Quartet, and any other (possibly) ill-conceived sequel**–the first book still stands alone all by itself, and if you don’t like what the sequels had to say, or don’t think there should be a sequel, ignore them or don’t read them.  The ambiguous endings of The Giver and Stuck In Neutral remain there in the original text, regardless of whether we read the further books.

But back to the topic of ambiguity.  As I was doing my google search, it occurred to me that there are at least two different kinds of ambiguous endings that we talk about.  The first kind is exemplified by The Giver and Stuck In Neutral–an ending which leaves the plot open and invites the reader to ask “what happens next?”  I think this is what most people would automatically think of as a classic ambiguous ending, but there is another type too: a story with an ambiguous meaning, where the author invites the reader to ask “what the heck just happened?”  Here, the plot per se is complete, but our understanding of it is not.  The most obvious example would be Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, in which no one (that I’m aware of) much cares what events occur after the ending of the story, but everyone who has ever read it has cared very deeply about whether or not there were real ghosts or not.  Another example, I think, is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.  The plot is tied up neatly at the end–Max comes back to his room, his mother has made him his supper.  But the reader has to ask, “did Max really sail to where the wild things are, and become king, and sail back, or was it all in his imagination?”

Personally, I love both of these types of ambiguity, and I suppose they aren’t even mutually exclusive, but I imagine that there are probably people who are more or less comfortable with one than the other.  It’s probably not wise for us to try to parse out why certain readers (or movie-goers) have negative reactions to ambiguous endings–since neither of us feels that way, we would probably just end up pop-psychologizing and over-generalizing–but I would certainly love to hear from any of our readers, if they dislike ambiguous endings, and if so, which kind and why?

One more thought: you mentioned that the ambiguous ending of The Giver makes a great discussion point: “what do you think happened?”  I find this interesting while I think this is a completely valid way of approaching the topic, for me the answer is always, “nothing–nothing happened next. The book ended.”  When I read a book with an ambiguous ending, I affirmatively don’t try to imagine what happened next.  For me, what makes them great is that both (or all) possible endings can exist simultaneously.  The author ended the story at that point, because that is where the story ends. Or, the author left the meaning open because both (or all) interpretations are valid ones to bring to the text.  I know I am probably in a very slim minority in thinking this way, but there it is.

So, those are some of my thoughts on ambiguity.  In the spirit of the theme, I think I’ll leave them without a proper conclusion, and just open it up to more discussion from you or our readers.

– Mark

*Incredibly, just last year, there was a sequel to another Printz Honor book from the same year as Stuck in Neutral, The Body of Christopher Creed by Carol Plum-Ucci, which also had an ambiguous ending.  I haven’t read the sequel, Following Christopher Creed, so I don’t know if it settles the ambiguity of the first book, but it’s certainly a strange coincidence.

**In fact, this is the same argument I use for people who say that a movie of book “ruined” the book

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7 Comments

Filed under Awards, Books, Children, Teens

7 responses to “Two Kinds of Ambiguity

  1. Jonathan Hunt

    Have either of you read THE MARBURY LENS and/or PASSENGER by Andrew Smith?

    • Mark Flowers

      I haven’t read either (though I think I have a copy of PASSENGER lying around somewhere – might have even had it signed by Smith at ALA). Do they have ambiguous endings?

  2. Jonathan Hunt

    I think they have both kinds of ambiguity that you mention. Neither one is my cup of tea, but PASSENGER just picked up its third starred review (raising it to auto-contenda status over at Someday). I’d be interested in your take on it, but it’s very, very long. You probably could read the second without the benefit of the first, but why would you want to?

  3. Sarah Flowers

    I haven’t read them either, although MARBURY LENS has been on my TBR list ever since I heard Andrew Smith speak at ALA.

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