Listening to “The Voices,” part 2
(Note: The following post contains massive spoilers for my novelette “The Voices.”)
Ambiguity can be a dangerous thing. Nearly every writer has been tempted to write a story that can be read in two different ways, or to mislead readers with unreliable narrators or the withholding of crucial information. When it’s done right, as in The Sixth Sense, the effect can be overwhelming, as the conclusion forces you to rethink everything you’ve seen before. The trouble is that if you’ve done your job poorly, or too well, readers may end up with a radically different impression from the one you intended, even if you’ve done your best to steer them in another direction. After Inception first came out, legions of viewers insisted that they saw the top fall in the final shot, even though it clearly does no such thing. When you’re deliberately trying to generate confusion, as in a movie like Certified Copy, it can be a lot of fun. But when you’ve written a story that hinges on a particular twist, only to have readers draw altogether different conclusions, the result can be frustrating for everyone concerned.
In the case of my story “The Voices”—and big spoilers follow—the ending reveals that January, the main character, is exactly what she seemed to be at the beginning: a woman with severe schizophrenia. The treatment she undergoes causes the voices in her head to fall silent, but replaces them with a more insidious hallucination: at the end of the story, she discovers that the young scientist with whom she has earnestly discussed the implications of her case is just a figment of her imagination, and that her delusions, thwarted along one parameter, had simply found another way to break out. When I first wrote the story, I tried to make this as clear as I could, including a long explanation in dialogue and a series of flashbacks, a la Fight Club, that encouraged the reader to reinterpret previous moments in a different light. And when my wife—always my first and best reader—told me that the ending was still a little unclear, I did my best to underline these points even further.
In the end, though, my wife’s initial reaction was probably a warning sign. When the story was published in Analog, I noticed a curious thing: a lot of readers, including at least one professional critic, were left with the impression that the voices were, in fact, real, and that I was writing a thinly disguised fantasy. The difficulty, I think, is that for most of the story’s length, the voices are presented at face value, as equal participants in the narrative, a tactic that seems to have convinced many readers that they were supposed to be objectively real. As one critic writes:
The problem here is with January’s denial, when she engages in lengthy conversations with the unseen presence, takes their detailed advice, and even calls one of them by name. If she has a delusion, it’s the unfounded notion that she’s delusional. The reader knows better and will have a hard time crediting this character.
Needless to say, this wasn’t what I intended: I wanted it to be clear, at least in retrospect, that every scene was written from January’s point of view, and that the fact that she could engage in extended conversations with the voices—which happens in cases of severe schizophrenia—is no evidence at all that they’re real. In the end, though, it seems that this narrative device was a little too convincing, and left many readers with the opposite impression even after I did my best to demolish it in the story’s final pages.
So what’s the lesson here? If readers ended up being confused in ways that I didn’t intend, it’s my fault, and I ultimately feel that the ambiguity hurts the story. (It’s no accident that “The Voices” has received something of a mixed reception from readers, with some highly positive reviews and others calling it their least favorite story in the issue—and while I don’t have any hard evidence for this, I suspect that those who concluded that the voices were real tended to like the story less, if only because it seemed more like fantasy than science fiction.) Looking back, part of me wonders if I could have made the ending more clear, although I also think that the only real solution would have been to recast the entire story in the first person, which would have emphasized the unreliable nature of the main character’s perceptions. Still, if nothing else, the experience taught me a valuable lesson: if you’re going to be ambiguous, you’d better be clear about it.