The King is dead. Long live the King.
Those sentences have been rattling around in my mind’s ears ever since I finished reading the thirteenth, and final, chapter of The Kindly Ones. They’re traditionally said at ceremonies of monarchical accession, but mostly they remind me of E.M. Forster’s distinction between a story and a plot. In Aspects of the Novel, Forster maintained that “The king died, and then the queen died” is a story, while “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. A story is a narrative of events; a plot is a narrative with causality.
Aspects of the Novel is a fascinating little book, but I don’t agree with much of any of it. (Or maybe I agree with more than I remember. It’s been a while since last I read it all.) Causation, for instance, is less compelling to me than it is to Forster. The relationship between reader and text holds my interest more than explanations do, and so I wonder about the ways writers hide or elide causation, forcing readers to create causes and motivations in their minds. Much of The Sandman, and “The Kindly Ones” in particular, stands as a model of this technique. Even at the end now, there is much we do not know about the Dream King and his downfall, about Daniel, about the ways of the Endless and their realms, about the Kindly Ones themselves. The mysteriousness forces us to be active readers, to dream our way through the gaps in the tales, and it also heightens the sense of the stories’ vastness. Narratives in which everything is apparent, in which all loose ends are tied up, not only violate the immense unknowability of life and the universe, but, no matter the depth of their details, produce an imaginary world much smaller and more limited than one built from hints and whispers and echoes.
Of course, too little definition and too much mystery spins a story in the opposite direction, toward bland, ethereal swamps of vagueness. Our imaginations need something to work with, some firecrackers to set them off. But it doesn’t take much if you can find just the right firecracker. In The Seagull, Anton Chekhov has the young, aspiring writer Treplev express his jealousy of the more established writer Trigorin’s ability to evoke an entire moonlit night with a single detail: a shard from a broken bottle glistening on a dam beside the shadow of a mill’s wheel. The technique may seem obvious for descriptive writing, but it’s really true for all storytelling: no matter what, something must be left up to the reader, because all stories are selections from infinite possibilities. The great challenge for any writer is to know how much to say and how much to leave unsaid.
Neil Gaiman addresses this idea explicitly in his afterword to “The Kindly Ones”, listing various unanswered questions from the story, then, instead of answering those questions, saying, “All I can do is quote Cain, quoting Robert Aickman, quoting Saccheverel Sitwell. It is the mystery that lingers, they have all told us, at one time or another, and not the explanation.”
Or, as Chekhov once said — though he wrote it in Russian and I’m paraphrasing from memory of a translation, so I might as well just be making it up — great literature is about questions, not answers.
Thus, “The Kindly Ones” ends not with pages of pyrotechnics to show the death of The Sandman, but with two pages about storytelling and mystery. The Kindly Ones have finished weaving their tale, they have conquered all other tales for the time being, and they settle down to read a fortune, one that annoys them because it doesn’t stick to its genre conventions. “More of a motto than a fortune,” one says of the quatrain pulled from the cookie. Another replies, “At least it’s not a moral. Worse than beginnings, morals. I’ve got no time for them. No time at all.” Lovers of mystery, questions, and great literature rarely have much time for morals, despite a certain cultural and educational subtext that seems to teach new readers that the best possible thing they can get from stories are good lessons. Morals and mottos fit on multiple-choice tests, so, alas, our schools encourage the idea that stories are full of them if you look at the right angle.
(Questions, not answers. Lingering mysteries, not explanations.)
Toward the end of “The Kindly Ones”, Larissa reads a book: When Real Things Happen to Imaginary People. (I imagine it’s a lost Philip K. Dick novel that Larissa somehow stole from Lucien’s library.) A wonderful title, and one that in some ways describes the very nature of fiction. Our imaginations make real the unreal. We let the details dream in us. For a writer, it can often be the greatest joy, the real thrill of sharing what you have written: the reader completes it. Even if the reader is inattentive or insane, they are still giving a life to your words in their mind.
I’ve been to countless author readings and interviews where a member of the audience asks what some element of a story means. More often than not, the writer responds: “It means whatever you think it means,” or, “Everything I know is in the story; the rest is for you to complete.”
I suppose it’s a matter of temperament. Not everyone likes Chekhov, after all, or Robert Aickman, one of the greatest of 20th century short story writers, someone whose best stories, like Chekhov’s, evoke endless implications. I can rationally understand people disliking such writers — one of the joys of being human is the diversity of our tastes — but mysteries and hints and whispers are so much at the core of what I seek in art that I have trouble sympathizing with the desire for clean endings and tidy resolutions, for explicit answers, for morals.
I don’t know what the moral of “The Kindly Ones” is (don’t kill your family members, even if it seems like a good idea at the time?), but having reached the last page, the story lives on in my mind, expanding in its possibilities, its questions fostering their own questions, its mysteries lingering through their refusal of explanation, its implications … endless…