Lorin Stein on the Power of Ambiguity in Fiction

The Paris Review editor discusses why the best stories ask more questions then they answer.

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

Doug McLean

In the past five years, Lorin Stein has watched something happen at The Paris Review, the literary magazine he edits. A new generation of writers under 40 has emerged, he says; their essays, poems, and short stories don’t sound alike, but they’ve been shaped by the same forces and they share a set of concerns. The goal of The Unprofessionals—an anthology of new work harvested from the Review’s pages, edited by Stein—is to put these voices in one place and let them be taken in together. The result is a dispatch from the front lines of literature.

In our conversation for this series, Stein discussed Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” a short story that puts The Unprofessionals into context. Stein suggests that “Car Crash” prefigures the best new writing he’s seeing today—understand how it works and why it electrifies, and you’ll see where things are headed. In the story’s troubled first-person voice and ambiguous ending, Stein locates a role for literary writing in our media-saturated 21st century.

Since The Paris Review was founded in 1953, it’s published young unknowns including Philip Roth, Adrienne Rich, and David Foster Wallace. The Unprofessionals is the magazine’s first anthology of new writing in 50 years. Though the book features contributions from a few well-known figures—Ben Lerner, Kevin Young, Zadie Smith—most names will be unfamiliar to most readers. Lorin Stein spoke to me by phone.

Lorin Stein: The stories that excite me most tend to have three qualities. First there’s a voice, a narrator who urgently needs to speak. Even if they never say “I.” Second, the narrator tries to persuade you that he or she is telling the truth. The third thing is, for lack of a better word, wisdom. A kind of moral authority, or at least the effort to settle a troubled conscience.

These three qualities are crystallized in Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” which first appeared in The Paris Review in 1989. For most of my grownup life I was a book editor. Novels were what interested me. When I thought of short stories, I thought—unfairly—of gray, melancholy, slightly boring, anxiety-producing little intrusions on the day. But then there were stories like “Car Crash.” It has a purity, a lack of machinery, that makes you believe it—the way you’d never believe a novel—from start to finish. I love the idea of finding new writers who could do that. That’s why I took a break from editing novels five years ago and went to work for The Review—a magazine devoted to short fiction

“Car Crash” is recollected by a man who used to be a vagrant and drug addict. One rainy night, he tells us, he was hitchhiking along a road somewhere, and was picked up by a family—parents and two kids. He claims he knew beforehand that this family would be in an accident. He has a premonition. And yet he gets in the car anyway, and doesn’t warn them that something terrible is going to happen.

He doesn’t care. He falls asleep in their car. And sure enough, he’s jolted awake into a horrifying scene: They’ve broadsided another driver, killing him. The narrator is fine, but the husband is only half conscious, slumped over the wheel, choking on his own blood. The ambulance arrives. A cop takes the narrator to the hospital with the rest of the family, where he learns that the husband has died.

Then he sees the widow of the driver. This is the crux of the story. “She had power over us,” the narrator says, “because we knew what was about to happen, and she didn’t.” He watches her walk into the room where she will be told her husband is dead:

The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.

This encounter happens out of sight; the narrator only hears the scream and sees the light under the door. But the scream is a kind of revelation: That’s truth. It’s a moment of contact, if that’s the right word.

I forgot to mention something the narrator says earlier, as he remembers the moment after the crash. He describes that husband—the man who’s about to die.

His blood bubbled out of his mouth with every breath. He wouldn’t be taking many more. I knew that, but he didn’t, and therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.

Whatever the widow experiences behind the closed door, that’s what’s real. She comes into the knowledge of what is.

Anyway, that’s the end of the car-crash anecdote. Before the story ends, the narrator mentions having spent time in detox, later on in his life. He mentions having had hallucinations. Then all at once, the last line of the story:

And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.

Now where does this last line come from? It raises a bunch of questions about the story as a whole. Like, who exactly are these people? Maybe they’re us readers. (But did we expect him to help us?) Who knows—maybe they’re a hallucination. Or people in an AA meeting, possibly. Or: I can’t help hearing a possibility that this narrator thinks he’s Jesus Christ. That this is a story about someone who has (or thinks he has) the power of God—but doesn’t save the people around him.

Whoever he is, whoever he’s talking to, it’s hard for me to read the story without feeling that God is the problem here. To me this is a story about faith, about the idea that there is an omniscient being who may be working in us, and making demands of us, demands we’re really not allowed to shirk. And whether you live up to those demands in the way Jesus is supposed to have done, or don’t, may not be under your control.

So much is happening in that last line, and yet I still have a hard time nailing down one single meaning of it. Much of the payoff here is emotional, not intellectual—I can feel it even if I can’t articulate it. There’s a certain kind of beauty that comes from precision, deep literacy, sense of rhythm, and awareness of the musical possibilities of plain language, that evades logical understanding but hits us in the heart.

Instead of pointing you toward a definitive interpretation, the story opens up a limited ambiguous space. That seems more realistic to me than they lived happily ever after, or then I figured this or that thing out. One thing I don’t like about the average memoir is that it tends to tell a story that adds up to: And that’s how I became the person that I am. I just never believe that kind of story. And because I don’t believe it, I’m not interested in it. I like the kind of memoir, and story, and poem, that says, At least I knew this much. I foreclosed certain possibilities, even if I don’t know the whole simple truth.

That’s something that happens a lot in this anthology we’ve published. You see a narrator on the edge of meaning he or she doesn’t quite grasp. The last line of Amie Barrodale’s story “William Wei,” for instance, is: “I think I can safely say it changed my life.” But I don’t really know how. It’s not that the narrator is delivered into insight. It’s not that the reader knows, either. The questions remain as alive as the answers. But for that to happen, you have to believe in the voice itself. The narrator has to exist as a steady reliable fact.

That seems to me especially true of contemporary fiction. I’m not sure why. I’d guess it has something to do with the fact that we don’t read the way our parents or grandparents did, and that writing has become a more and more specialized, marginalized activity. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. But it means we’ve become interested in the fiction of the speaker. Interested, suspicious, aware. We might ask—in a way that our grandparents wouldn’t have asked—why someone is sitting down at the keyboard at a Starbucks and doing this? It’s no longer given why someone would tell a story on paper, or onscreen. It’s become a troubling question.

So we have all these first-person narrators. When it’s done right, fiction provides the authority to speak about deep things; at the same time, it provides a shield, a mask. The mask lets you say things, talk about things, that you couldn’t ordinarily talk about. You don’t have to make sense in quite the same way. You don’t have to account for yourself in the same way. You don’t have to pretend that you’re a single subject. You don’t have to pretend you’ve got free will. You don’t have to pretend that you’re the master of your conscience. Or that you don’t have forbidden desires that you act on. You can talk about shameful things. I mean, whatever else it is, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” is a story about shame. And I think literary writing in the first person is very good at dealing with shame. Not getting rid of shame, but exploring it—from behind a mask.

I think there’s a kind of realism—not just in stories, but in poems and essays—that assumes we live in dishonesty, that we lie to others and ourselves as a matter of survival, but that part of us knows the truth when we see it. That’s what interests me: the truths we can’t tell except when we put on the mantle of this authority. That’s the kind of realism I see in this anthology.

This is actually the first anthology of new writing that we’ve done in more than 50 years. There’s something new happening, and it’s been happening for The Paris Review, too—we’ve been lucky. I haven’t yet seen a book that’s captured this moment in our literature, that’s captured our changing relationship to the narrator and point of view. Writers grow up more slowly than they used to. With a very few exceptions, everything in the book was written by someone in his or her 30s. Nowadays that seems to be the age at which many writers come into their own. The moment when they have something to say and the tools to say it.

There’s nothing better, as an editor, than being sent something arresting by a writer whose name you don’t yet know. Usually, the quality just jumps out at you. When you start reading something that’s really an achieved work, it doesn’t matter who the writer is, or whether or not they’ve published. It just calls out to you. You turn off the computer. You sit down. And you read it.