Lit­er­ary sneak at­tacks

A cog­ni­tive sci­en­tist on how authors set read­ers up for a shock

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Gail Marshall is head of the School of Literature and Lan­guages at the Univer­sity of Read­ing.

El­e­ments of Sur­prise: Our Men­tal Lim­its and the Sat­is­fac­tions of Plot By Vera Tobin

Har­vard Univer­sity Press, 344pp, £25.95

ISBN 9780674980204 Pub­lished 16 April 2018

Ian McEwan once mem­o­rably de­scribed hear­ing a BBC Ra­dio 4 adap­ta­tion of one of his nov­els as like see­ing a fa­mil­iar face that had some of its teeth miss­ing. The ex­pe­ri­ence of read­ing El­e­ments of Sur­prise is not dis­sim­i­lar. Old favourites – Emma, Great Ex­pec­ta­tions and McEwan’s own Atone­ment, among oth­ers – ap­pear re­worked, done over by a dif­fer­ent dis­ci­pline. They emerge not so much with miss­ing teeth as with a pre­vi­ously fa­mil­iar el­e­ment sur­gi­cally en­hanced. This is not to the detri­ment of the nov­els, but it does make for a de­fa­mil­iaris­ing and chal­leng­ing new read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

Vera Tobin ap­proaches a set of mainly 19th- and 20th-cen­tury nov­els and films as a cog­ni­tive sci­en­tist, de­ter­mined to un­der­stand the ways in which read­ers’ and view­ers’ brains col­lude with the cre­ators’ in­ten­tions to pro­duce the “el­e­ment of sur­prise”. Sur­prises rely, as Tobin ar­gues, on cog­ni­tive bias – and are of­ten seen pri­mar­ily as part of the reper­toire of light read­ing. Yet in fact, she claims, sur­prise op­er­ates as part of a com­plex nar­ra­to­rial as well as cog­ni­tive process. It works to help us dis­tin­guish be­tween points of view, to be alert to mis­di­rec­tion and then to ac­knowl­edge the se­duc­tive power of nar­ra­tion: while poorly con­structed sur­prises can leave us feel­ing cheated, a good sur­prise can be a de­light. In El­e­ments of Sur­prise, John le Carré (pic­tured in­set) rubs shoul­ders with Agatha Christie, Jane Austen with Gra­ham Greene, in a wide-rang­ing anal­y­sis of a trope and prac­tice that moves across all gen­res – and that is far from re­stricted to clas­sic de­tec­tive fic­tion. That said, part of the plea­sure of this book is that it in­sists that a good de­tec­tive story’s sur­prise can be as sat­is­fy­ing and as skil­fully wrought as any other suc­cess­ful nar­ra­tive. Read­ers are in­vited to con­sider how sleights of hand, or an Agatha Christie plot, work time and again, how plot twists “cap­i­tal­ize very ef­fi­ciently on gen­eral short­cuts and bi­ases in our cog­ni­tion. They use fun­da­men­tal ten­den­cies of our own minds against us – but also, ul­ti­mately, for us, because these ten­den­cies are in a sweet spot of con­scious ac­ces­si­bil­ity that al­lows us to rec­og­nize them when we fall prey to them even as we are not quite able en­tirely to con­trol or sup­press them”.

Suc­cess­ful, ap­par­ently “for­mu­laic”, nov­els hit the sweet spot through their plant­ing of knowl­edge that will go “un­con­sid­ered or mis­in­ter­preted” un­til it is needed to gen­er­ate a so­lu­tion that then en­tails a reread­ing or recon­ceiv­ing of a known set of cir­cum­stances. Tobin’s care­ful anal­y­sis of the me­chan­ics of “sur­prise” fully mo­bilises the cog­ni­tive sciences as provoca­tive and valu­able lit­er­ary crit­i­cal tools.

We might al­ready be ac­quainted with this process in spe­cific gen­res, but her read­ings of a range of texts pro­duce less fa­mil­iar ex­pe­ri­ences when we’re asked to think about Great

Ex­pec­ta­tions, Emma and Atone­ment as ve­hi­cles for the sur­prises that the nov­els con­tain. In terms of Great Ex­pec­ta­tions, that means that we might read the novel not from the van­tage point of its con­clu­sion when Pip achieves maturity but can dwell on the mid­dle parts of the novel, on “the ex­pe­ri­ences of sur­prise and sym­pa­thy that go hand in hand” through­out the text. In­deed, Tobin ar­gues, Pip’s process of growth and forced re­nun­ci­a­tion of his first de­duc­tions about Estella and his own bene­fac­tor act as a pro­to­type of the process through which a reader has to go. Sur­prises and rev­e­la­tions de­pend ab­so­lutely on re­sist­ing or re­nounc­ing ini­tial read­ings and in­ter­pre­ta­tions, on ad­mit­ting that we got it wrong, as Pip has to do.

In or­der fully to sat­isfy, the rev­e­la­tion has at least to en­able us to be­come bet­ter read­ers, as Pip ar­guably is al­lowed to be­come a bet­ter man as a re­sult of his painfully ac­quired knowl­edge. This is not to say that our cog­ni­tive bi­ases will be over­rid­den as we ac­quire a greater reper­toire of nar­ra­tive sur­prises, but that we will per­haps bet­ter un­der­stand the ex­tent to which our read­ing and view­ing plea­sure de­pends on the fris­son of ma­nip­u­la­tion, of know­ing we’ve been had, and how a writer or di­rec­tor can or­ches­trate and then lead us out of the mo­ment of rev­e­la­tion.

Tobin ar­gues that the sur­prise plot is a “trope of ret­ro­spec­tion” and one that de­pends on “the in­ter­play of mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives”. As such, it’s not spoiled by reread­ing: it’s based on a form of reread­ing while still be­ing part of the act of read­ing for the first time. While we’re read­ing, or watch­ing, “some new, su­pe­rior in­ter­pre­ta­tion of what has gone be­fore” is re­vealed. The au­di­ence is ide­ally pro­foundly sat­is­fied by that rev­e­la­tion, es­pe­cially if it is ex­plic­itly ac­knowl­edged and recog­nised by char­ac­ters within the story.

One of the best cin­e­matic re­veals, which Tobin dis­cusses briefly here, comes at the end of Bryan Singer’s The Usual Sus­pects (1995), when Chazz Palminteri’s de­tec­tive re­alises the lies that Kevin Spacey’s char­ac­ter, Ver­bal Kint, has been telling him – and when as view­ers we see Kint’s bro­ken shuf­fle morph into con­fi­dent pac­ing. The power of that chill­ing im­age doesn’t come from its be­ing em­bed­ded back into a nar­ra­tive, but in its be­ing left with us as read­ers to ac­knowl­edge, with­out the sup­port of an on­go­ing nar­ra­tive, how we’ve been played.

While we might en­joy the sin­is­ter fris­son of the end of the film, this ex­am­ple also high­lights a cer­tain pas­siv­ity that lies at the heart of the sur­prise. It feels as if we in the au­di­ence are al­ways sub­ject to the cre­ative direc­tion of a sto­ryteller and that there is lit­tle room for our own in­de­pen­dent in­ter­play with plot. That said, El­e­ments of Sur­prise is a fas­ci­nat­ing anal­y­sis of an el­e­ment of plot that we might just take too much for granted.

In her 1859 short story, The Lifted Veil, Ge­orge Eliot uses a first-person nar­ra­tor, the reclu­sive La­timer, to con­sider the plight of some­one who be­lieved he could not be sur­prised. La­timer fore­sees not only minute de­tails of places he’s go­ing to visit, but be­lieves he can read the minds of those around him. The only person whose mind he can’t pen­e­trate is the beau­ti­ful Bertha. It’s her whom he mar­ries, so des­per­ate is he not to know, to be sur­prised.

Eliot (pic­tured above) re­veals the de­sire for mys­tery as a fun­da­men­tal part of hu­man re­la­tion­ships, as well as the work­ings of nar­ra­tive. But Bertha’s mind hides her se­cret de­sire to mur­der her mis­an­thropic hus­band. That rev­e­la­tion points to the nec­es­sary dan­gers of the un­known and the com­pul­sion to try to pen­e­trate mys­ter­ies, as well as sig­nalling the chal­lenge for the writer of hold­ing and with­hold­ing knowl­edge. The “curse of knowl­edge”, as Tobin con­vinc­ingly ar­gues, is at the heart of sur­prise and its cultural man­i­fes­ta­tions – but it is also fun­da­men­tal to the acts of writ­ing, read­ing and their at­ten­dant plea­sures.

Tobin ar­gues that the sur­prise plot is a ‘trope of ret­ro­spec­tion’ and one that de­pends on ‘the in­ter­play of mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives’

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