Like many readers, I enjoy suspense. More than anything, I want to be so wrapped up in a story that I neglect household chores and family members. Page numbers should be a shocking revelation (as in "I can't believe I just read 100 pages. I wonder if dinner is now cooked to cinders?" NOT "Just 80 more pages to the end. I can do this.") The conflict in question doesn't have to be big, just compelling. There doesn't need to be a hipster glasses-wearing zombie lurking outside your favorite dive bar hoping to get his last sip of IPA from you...the hard way. (Though somebody please write that.) But I do have to wonder what is going to happen next and give some cares about how this affects the characters in the story. (Turns out the zombie was actually hopped up on caffeine from his previous victim, an espresso drinker, and gets impatient, moving on to a vintage clothing store where he manages to find the perfect ironic plaid western shirt for his next Zombies Anonymous meeting. "People are friends, not food.")
But seriously, I'm all about some surprising but inevitable endings, and I can hang with perspective shifts with the best of them, but here's the thing: I (and I imagine most readers) have a limit. Remember that terrible show, Lost? I didn't watch it. Well, that's not entirely true. My husband insisted that I was missing out, and so I relented and watched the last season and half. (I'll never get those hours back, unfortunately.) One of the most irritating parts of the show (and that's really saying something) was that on the rare occasion that something mildly interesting was happening on screen, the writers would laugh maniacally (in my head, anyway) and switch to some scene with two lovestruck people staring into each other's eyes, while looking inexplicably well-groomed (except for the three grains of sand stuck to their prominent cheekbones because, you know, realism.) It wasn't so much about building suspense as it was just pissing me off. Here's what you could be watching....PSYCH, just kidding. Back to Love in the Time of Smoke Monsters. So, why, with such a fine example of poor pacing and annoying cliffhanger music (Psycho meets Jaws meets the Law & Order musical gavel bang) readily available on streaming would you write a book that utilizes these same devices?
I've run into a string of these books lately. Two, in particular spring to mind, and interestingly they're both dystopian/speculative fiction. J, by Howard Jacobson, follows several characters through their sad and narrow lives in a mysteriously altered England (I think?). I was really excited about this one. The description was just bizarre enough (a guy who always held two fingers over his mouth when saying a word with the letter "J" in it, a post-event world--not necessarily an apocalypse--in trouble, characters with murky pasts) to lure me in, but the execution of Jacobson's concept (SPOILER ALERT) of living in the aftermath of a second Jewish holocaust was oblique at best and completely mostly opaque.
Here's the thing: if you do decide to use a shifting perspective, to dole out information like you're rationing food for wartime, you'd better have one hell of a revelation at the end. Like a Luke, I am your father, he's been dead the whole time, Keyser Soze kind of revelation. You can't leave your reader in total murkiness once you've built up that much suspense. Don't get me wrong. I'm fine with ambiguous endings. What I'm not fine with is making it clear that the narrator has the answers, had some sort of revelation, but instead hands you a your-simple-little-reader mind-couldn't-handle-it kind of vagueness.
Which leads me to Area X, (Jeff Vandermeer) a mysterious place, a mysterious trilogy. There was so much bizarre creepiness, delightfully icky and disturbing detail. It was a book about unraveling the mystery of Area X. It's a sprawling narrative with lots of characters, lots of time covered, and a whole lot of different perspectives. It's dystopian, speculative, sci-fi with literary fiction level writing. So why did I have to drag myself through the last 150 pages? Because the explanation (at least as much as ever gets resolved in the book anyway) is strung out between so many different journal entries, interior monologues, and angry dialogues that stop and start the action too many times to count. Yes, dear writer, we get it: You know the answers. We don't. But you don't need to keep slapping us in the head with this fact.
All this complaining and now I have to admit that this sort of dividing up the narrative to increase the suspense thing can actually work. Enter All the Light We Cannot See, the latest Pulitzer winner for fiction. (Anthony Doerr) This guy does the shortest, quickest little chapter/perspective shifts I've just about ever seen. So why does it work?
For one, he limits the number of people he follows. While there are a few forays into the minds of some less central characters, Doerr focuses the majority of his chapters on the two main characters, flipping back and forth between their lives sometimes after only the briefest of snapshots. But you don't have so many of those moments where you're suddenly taken completely out of the story to follow a seemingly unrelated character.
Another thing that makes his book work is narrative structure. Within his date-stamped sections, he follows along fairly chronologically, so that each little tidbit furthers the action and the plot. The reader may be shifting perspectives, but ultimately it reads more like a shift in camera angles than a fade to a different scene, especially as the conflict escalates. Though admittedly, the quick back-and-forth of his structure took a few chapters to relax into the rhythm, ultimately the braiding of perspective felt organic, as we learned how these two characters' lives came to intersect so briefly.
Which leads me to my last point. There needs to be a reason for doling out information in such a piece-by-piece way. Doerr needed to show his characters in a parallel fashion so that the moment when they all converge makes sense and is powerful. While with Jacobson and Vandermeer, it just felt like they were either figuring it out as they went along, making up backstory as needed, or just enjoyed teasing the reader with tidbits of useful (or not) information.
So, the moral of the story? I hated Lost. Like really hated it. Like can't understand why everyone is so freaking in love with JJ Abrams kind of hated it. Also, don't watch Lost.