catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 19 :: 2010.10.22 — 2010.11.04


There is more than one version of this

Ambiguity and the need for multiple narratives

They knew each other. They didn’t.

There was a bet, or a robbery, a dis or a partnership or maybe money owed. Someone said a drug deal.


He lied. He didn’t lie. Part of it was and part wasn’t. Was it self-serving? He told the truth, allegedly.

One of the main difficulties covering crime for a paper is the deep ambiguity that can afflict a narrative. Sometimes a story goes in one direction with one narrative for weeks — the break-in and homicide was a robbery, out of hand — and then that explanation is just dropped, abandoned, and another narrative is given. By the time the case gets to the courthouse there are usually two competing versions of events, but before that, in the first days of the investigation and in the process of questioning and interrogating, there are often multitudes. There are layers of lies, layers of truths.  There are justifications and explanations, prevarications and machinations and which is which? And what do you believe?

When it finally comes down to two stories, one for the prosecution, one for the defense, I am sitting in the courthouse pews, taking notes and doodles and thinking of other possible explanations. Other versions of motivations. Other narratives. Thinking of ambiguities.

And maybe it’s not a matter of guilt. We know who did it. But the stories of why and what and how will multiply and splinter, if you think about it, until the only thing you know is that you don’t understand.

Against this, though, the other reporters, and the police and the prosecution, and later the cop show or crime novel version, will insist on an obvious story, refusing to admit the story was an interpretation and that there could be others. They made, in general, the same problematic move that the Biblical literalists make, arguing that their interpretation is not an interpretation. It is just true. The plain reading.

Crawford Gribben, in his book about evangelical apocalyptic fiction — the one genre or art form, he says, that American evangelicals actually invented — writes that “with a small number of exceptions…prophecy novels refused to admit that the meaning of Scripture could be contested.”  This quality has often been commented upon in critiques of fundamentalists and it’s just de facto for academic discussions of their eschatology, but I don’t think it only happens there. Our narratives often refuse to admit ambiguity. They don’t or won’t — or maybe can’t — admit that the meaning could be contested.

Unreliable narrators have been common for more than 100 years — Rashomon, Lolita — but normally, the way we see this work out now is the twist ending, which allows for only a moment of ambiguity and multiplicity of meaning, before resolving it.  Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese’s latest poorly reviewed work, is a classic example of this tendency. It begins with a straightforward, singular narrative: a detective is called to an island asylum to investigate a disappearance. Then, a multiplicity is introduced. A crazy woman offers an alternative story, and there are a series of inconsistencies, and something is not as it seems. At the crux of the movie, there are multiple, conflicting, confusing accounts of what’s going on, but then, in the end, clarity is reasserted as we are given one single explanation, a unified theory that accounts for everything (in an incredibly boring way). Then the credits roll. At no point, though, even when there are six or seven explanations being offered, does the movie admit that there might really be more than one. When Leonardo DiCaprio’s character says, “We haven’t heard the truth once, yet,” there is an underlying assumption that the truth we will hear and want to hear is the kind of truth that is heard once, is fundamentally singular, and once heard doesn’t splinter and repeat in alternating, alternative accounts. The unreliable narrator here is just the twist so that, in the end, we are surprised to accept one account instead of another, but there was never any moment or any chance that we might have accepted more than one.

Contrast Shutter Island with Casablanca, a movie whose greatness mostly rests on its final ambiguity, the way it doesn’t resolve, but opens up into multiple explanations. Or the television series Lost, which was most interesting in the early seasons when different characters debated several interpretations of the island.

Most of the time, however, we try and clear away the possibility of multiplicity in our narratives. We don’t want multiple stories. Things have to resolve. “But,” as Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote, “that search for specificity and reliability only makes the problem worse.” There is, according to Gladwell, a kind of “inherent opacity” to speech, and efforts to clear it up and eliminate confusion compound the problem. Writing about spies, the unreliability of information and the problems of interpretation, Gladwell (fantastically) concludes that crazy James Jesus Angleton, one of America’s great paranoids, might have been the sanest Cold War spy. Gladwell explains:

What [Angleton] brought to spycraft was the intellectual model of the New Criticism, which, as one contributor to Furioso put it, was propelled by “the discovery that it is possible and proper for a poet to mean two differing or even opposing things at the same time.” Angleton saw twists and turns where others saw only straight lines. To him, the spy game was not a story that marched to a predetermined conclusion. It was, in a phrase of Eliot’s that he loved to use, “a wilderness of mirrors.”

Angleton had a point. The deceptions of the intelligence world are not conventional mystery narratives that unfold at the discretion of the narrator. They are poems, capable of multiple interpretations.

Perhaps because of the common rules, or at least expectations, of narrative, this everyday opacity of meaning, this deep ambiguity, seems almost impossible to show. Perhaps it’s a problem of narrative.

With crime stories — fiction or non-fiction — what is revealed in the investigation is essential to the plot. It has a narrative function, and if that information can’t be trusted, if it fractures out into a score of stories and versions of stories and then the detectives and the readers just have to pick one, then the narrative breaks down. This isn’t just true for the deeply reassuring, reaffirming-the-status-quo crime stories like CSI, Law and Order or Criminal Minds, which embrace formulaic exposition and impossibly clean-cut explanations, but even for The Wire. The Wire is the one cop show with a multi-layered view of the world, interested in institutions and sociological explanations of crime, and it’s an amazing show that isn’t afraid of complication and convolution. Yet, when it comes to the interrogation room, it’s always clear what’s a lie and what’s the truth. The detectives don’t really chase dead ends and bad leads and false information, and cases are called “slam dunks” or “stone-cold who-done-its,” as if those are the only two choices.

There’s a scene that appears in both The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Streets, which was also based on David Simon’s reportorial experience, in which a detective with a low clearance rate and impossibly bad luck agonizes over answering the phone. If I answer it it’ll be a John Doe dump job, he says to his partner (or something like that), but if you answer it there’ll be eyewitnesses, evidence and finger prints and the “perp” will walk himself in with a written confession.

It’s true that there are cases like those. There’s the one in which a homeless man was found beaten to death in an empty lot 50 miles from where he usually panhandled, and one in which the murderer said on tape he was going to kill, and then killed, and then called 911 to explain before waiting on the corner covered in blood for the cops to come. But, in my experience, what’s more common is the case in which there are witnesses, but none of them is reliable, and evidence, but all of it is ambiguous. What’s more common are cases with no easy narrative, no single story that accounts for everything and nothing is ever entirely clear.

Most of what I hear and most of what I write might rightly end with a statement about the ongoing, never-ending mystery of humanity. Who knows what really motivates someone. A story might best be concluded with a statement about what we do not and will never know. The last word, maybe, should always be “ambiguity,” or a disclaimer: “There is more than one version of this.”

All I can do, though, is to try to write that ambiguity into the story, to offer all of explanations given, and maybe offer a few more of my own. I try to let the reader know that we do not have access to facts, but only interpretations. There is no plain and simple version, no final report that cannot be contested and, whenever I can, I try to say “he said” or “according to.”

I try, always, to add the word that interrupts, that deconstructs, that raises questions and leaves them there, lodged in the narrative, widening the cracks that show the multiplicity — that weird word, paranoid and never used except by crime reporters: “allegedly.”

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