Living with Ambiguity…
Recently I read a review of my new novel, The Perfume Collector. While the reviewer enjoyed the book, she ended her piece wondering what the moral of the story was, a question that, frankly, surprised me.
It’s true that I associate moral endings more with Aesop’s fables or the maddening tales of Guy de Maupassant. That kind of storytelling has its place. However, my reader’s query forced me to consider my own lack of, and indeed, aversion to, a neatly packaged moral message.
For me, ambiguity is a worthy theme in itself. As we get older, life becomes increasingly conflicted. People we love do things we disagree with fundamentally. Others we were inclined to dismiss take actions we unexpectedly admire. To put it simply, there’s bad in the best of us and good in the worst. Perhaps most importantly, we discover in ourselves a capacity for error and misguided prejudice that requires sober reevaluation. We’re not, in short, the people we imagined we were. And neither is anyone else.
This is a recurring theme in my books; every protagonist I write polishes their identity against the rough surface and confusing duality of life. The characters don’t triumph; instead they learn to tolerate and surrender to the vacillating nature of people and circumstances. It’s not a subject matter I deliberately chose, however, it’s an ongoing question I turn around in my mind with each new set of characters. Ambiguity itself is a creative irritant; the uncomfortable grit that hopefully produces a pearl.
I’ve been told that learning to live with ambiguity and paradox is both the challenge and the measure of becoming an emotionally mature adult. Certainly I find it no easy task. I often wish I could reach back to my younger, cockier self and grab hold of the hard, bright certainty I once enjoyed, when I could clearly divide the world and its people into “right “,' wrong “, “good ” and “bad “. But I can’t. One of the unfortunate side effects of no longer being able to shoe-horn yourself into those categories is that you’re unable to do it to anyone else.
That’s why I write about the experience of ambiguity — moral, religious, sexual, artistic – and why it appears as a theme in my novels. I want to read about people who have come to grips with their humanness and made peace with the attendant disillusionment that brings. My experience isn’t that life’s people and issues resolve themselves neatly or even come to a discernable end, let alone present a clear lesson. Like it or not, sometimes the point is simply to keep going, without any comforting clarity or reassurance. To me, that persistence in the face of self-doubt is heroism. We blunder, we flounder; we take ridiculous actions, driven by fear, delusions of grandeur; hubris. We try, we fail. We try again.
And occasionally something beautiful happens. Something flawed, starkly miraculous and unexpected. Those are the stories I like best.