The Fine Art of Ambiguous Writing

The author Reif Larsen says Joseph Conrad and Anselm Kiefer taught him how to practice omission without infuriating his readers.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

Reif Larsen’s new novel, I am Radar, is influenced by quantum mechanics—a field of science that highlights how nothing in the universe is certain. In our conversation for this series, we discussed ambiguity’s crucial role in literature, focusing on a work that hides much more than it reveals: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. We delved into some of literature’s unsolved mysteries: How should fiction balance clarity and obscurity? Why do artists task themselves with impossible creative challenges? And, in a world filled with urgent suffering, can making art be justified?

I am Radar begins in a New Jersey hospital during a scene of childbirth. As an infant’s head crowns, the power goes out. Darkness conceals the child’s delivery, which becomes one of the book’s central uncertainties: Why was Radar Radmanovic, the book’s central character, born with black skin when his parents are white? The parents’ search for an answer—and a “cure”—leads to a mysterious group of puppeteers, who stage massive works of avant-garde performance in war zones. Moving from Congo to Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Larsen explores art’s attempts to conquer horror, and humanity’s response to unanswerable questions.

Like The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, Larsen’s best-selling first novel, I am Radar is studded with illustrative photographs, scientific diagrams, and curious typography. His debut was adapted into a feature film, The Young and Prodigious Spivet, starring Helena Bonham Carter, and has been translated into 27 languages. Larsen lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, and spoke to me by phone.

Reif Larsen: I first read Heart of Darkness, like many people do, as an assignment for a high school class. It’s a short work, only 80 pages or so. That’s probably why my copy, the Penguin Classics edition, includes so much additional material: there’s a long introduction, a glossary, a map, and “The Congo Diary,” observations Conrad wrote down as he traveled through the Congo. These additions are compelling, but I don’t think they’re necessary. Heart of Darkness still feels novelistic to me, despite its length. There’s a wonderful ambiguity that surrounds it, this feeling you can’t fully wrap your hands around. It feels much bigger than the sum of its parts.

Obviously, the book has taken a lot of heat and rightful criticism over the years. There’s the famous Chinua Achebe post-colonial critique: the Africans in the book are faceless; it sets up a dichotomy of Europeans versus Africans, it romanticizes and oversimplifies the dark continent.” Heart of Darkness has grown to be more than just the story Conrad wrote—criticism is part of literature, too, and the story around the text becomes part of the text itself. Still, I think it’s also important to go back to the original. As someone who writes fiction, I like to approach a novel on its own terms, and judge its flaws and merits for myself.

The first thing that struck me about Heart of Darkness was its language. I was completely taken with Conrad's sentences, which I initially found even more compelling than the story’s content. The language is borderline florid, but the unusual syntax, the heightened diction always kept me off balance. You can tell English is not Conrad’s native language. He approaches each sentence in this beautiful, backdoor way. You see this a little bit with Nabokov, too (although I think Nabokov had an English nanny as a kid, whereas I don’t think Conrad really came into contact with English until his twenties). Both writers have this syntactical jujitsu: the sentences often have you expecting one thing then midway through pull the rug out from under you.

I wanted whatever I wrote to have that potential for surprise. If you grew up speaking English, you can slip into these conventional linguistic patterns. It’s easy to get lazy. Conrad reminds me that, each time you end a sentence and begin a new one—every time you press period, space, shift-capital—all kinds of crazy things can happen. That was my first reaction to Heart of Darkness: wow, each sentence is a gift of possibility.

Then there’s the framing device Conrad uses, the fact that the whole book is being told to you on the deck of another ship. I love this effect: For me, it returns literature to its essence, which is a story being told. We often forget that novels have deep roots in storytelling, because books are objects, things you hold and read alone in your underwear. But I always try to connect the novel back to its roots: We’re sitting around a campfire, and now it’s someone’s turn to tell a story. I try to think of myself as a storyteller, rather than a “writer.”

One thing I think is true about successful storytelling: There’s as much significance in what’s left out as in what’s actually said. Of course, our initial impulse is to want to give lots and lots of context. Here we are at this location. Here’s how we got here. Here’s what it looks like, and so on. That tends to be the easy stuff. The hard part is non-disclosure. This is really a crucial tenet of narration, perhaps the crucial tenet—and it’s not an innate skill. How do we learn how not to tell things?

Conrad is a master of not telling. Yes, some of his language is quite precise—some would say too precise. He’s gotten flak for overusing descriptive adjectives, and so on. But he also knows just what details to omit. With Conrad, you have this amazing balance: the precision of the language on one hand and the purposeful obscuring of place and character on the other. This combination of ambiguity and clarity leaves you totally energized but also disoriented, and I think this is why we succumb to the narrative’s seductions.

There’s a moment in Heart of Darkness that especially captures this effect for me (and was one of the seeds for my new book). It’s a crazy scene where they’re meandering their way down the West African coast. Someone, the ship’s navigator, maybe knows where they are—but certainly the narrator doesn’t know. And the reader doesn’t know where he or she is, either.

Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign drooped limp like a rag; the muzzle of the long eight-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, shiny swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one the eight-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech—and nothing happened. Nothing could happen.

I come back to this. It leaves me sort of ragged that there’s this boat, identified only as French, with her guns pointed all which way, just shelling this continent. It’s unclear what’s going on. Why are they doing this? Who’s giving the orders? And what is the end result? A single shell hitting this contingent seems so utterly futile. It’s just so inconsequential.

In one sense, the boat’s useless actions, the “feeble screech” of its shells, capture the utter absurdity of war. But we’re hit with a metaphor for the vastness of human experience, too. “In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water,” Conrad writes, “there she was.” That’s us—lost and downtrodden, shooting uselessly into the infinite. However you want to critique his handling of the continent as this sort of overly wrought symbol that ignores the complexities of those who live there, this image of the lost man-of-war nonetheless endures for me. I’ve approached the coast of Africa on that Western side. In places, the jungle runs right up to the water. You’re confronted with the massiveness of it. Of course, your mind tries to fill in the blank interior. But you get the sense that there’s so much we can’t see, so much we can’t understand, so much we can never put into words. Conrad reminds us that ambiguity is an essential aspect of the human experience. The challenge is to be ambiguous without being ignorant.

At the same time, we all have this tendency to want to tie up the loose ends. Our brains just sort of fill in gaps and holes automatically, and as a writer it’s tempting to try to do that for the reader—I have to come out and say this or that, we fear, or people won’t “get it.” With my new book, I wanted to resist that impulse. Instead of closing loops, I tried to leave them open. My hope is that this openness is emotionally compelling, but who knows? In this day and age, it’s challenging—particularly as our attention spans collapse—to be comfortable with long-form ambiguity. It can anger people if you take it too far. And yet I think all my favorite books linger with me because they don’t close the loops. If a story’s ending closes out too many possibilities, you risk damaging the potential connections and openings the reader can make. That openness can be a gift.

For me, the process of writing a novel is very much like the scene I like so much from Heart of Darkness—that crazy, audacious shelling of the continent. You know you’re going to end up failing, whatever your pursuits are. You don’t know why exactly you’re making the choices you’ve made. It can be infuriating. With this particular novel, there were many days I asked myself what I was doing. I felt totally lost, like the disease-addled man-of-war. What made me still give the order to fire the cannons? It doesn’t matter—despite it all, you still shell the continent.

I don’t know how other writers feel, but there were many days I did feel like I was engaged in a sort of battle. Which is crazy, because you set up the battlefield. But, strangely, I love the war. The days when I was battling—when maybe two or three sentences came out from six hours of work—were secretly the days I loved the most. Now that I’ve finished the book, I long for them again. The days when you wrote 10 or 15 pages are great, but there’s no war there. The real trench warfare comes when you are debating a comma or a semicolon for hours. Paradoxically by wallowing in these nitty-gritty details, you are getting at the whole.

It goes back to the question of art, and art during genocide and war: Is there a purpose to performing [works] that could seem outlandish and unhelpful? In a time when people just need food and water, why put on Waiting for Godot? When we could be actually helping people—saving lives, rebuilding houses? I think about this all the goddamn time. What am I using these hands for? I could be doing things with tangible outcomes, and instead I’m writing a glorified bedtime story.

I don’t have a good answer to this. It’s a question that haunts me every day. On the one hand, I feel totally completely lucky that I get to write fiction for a living. But along with that comes guilt that I am not contributing more directly to the human project. Maybe someday I will, but for now I haven’t been able to balance that equation.

Ultimately, literature is about exploring such forms of unresolvable ambiguity—looking closely at them, turning them over in our hands. Sometimes you don’t know the answer, and never will. I think that’s important to recognize that. Sometimes, we talk about novels as though writers have the ultimate answer but I think that’s rarely true. I get so many questions from readers—I interpret it this way, is that right? And I know it sounds facetious, but I tell them: I don’t actually know. Sure, I have some theories myself—though they often change—but after I write this thing, I’m just another reader.

The fact is that, if I was to write this book again, in a parallel universe, I probably wouldn’t write the same book. That’s probably good. I always think about the Paul Valery quote: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” How horrific, in some sense! We like to think that great works of art build to a perfect, proper ending. That Beethoven must have thought, “and now, it’s done!” But probably what really happened is that he got syphilis or gingivitis and thought, “Okay, got to finish this one.”

I think this happens all the time. We think what a perfect ending!—when really, what happened was, the writer got hungry and got up to get a sandwich. But I love that. There’s a fleetingness to the process—now it’s done, let’s move on. Any great book could have been written a number of different ways, and the version we have is both perfect and imperfect. Another fundamental ambiguity of the novel: It can be both at the same time.