I recently watched the movie The Straight Story for the first time, based on the real life story of a seventy-something-year-old man who crossed the state of Iowa in his 1966 John Deere tractor. It’s a David Lynch film.
Very slow movie to get started (especially for a suspense author). You just have to sit back and get in the groove. But I loved it. Just a feel-good type movie. Not until after the movie did I learn it was based on a real story. So I went googling for the guy’s name—Alvin Straight. Neither was I familiar with David Lynch films, which apparently are quite dark. I ran across this very long review of TSS. It totally changed the story for me. Based on the premise of what kind of films David Lynch usually does, it talks about the dark side of TSS, how the surface, sweet story masks something totally different. I think the review is quite plausible. In fact it answered logic questions I had about the movie, which cannot be explained if you see The Straight Story as merely a feel-good, sweet story.
I’m no dummy when it comes to picking up symbolism in a story, but I never saw any of this dark underside of the movie. I'm not alone. Most of the reviewers didn't either, which was exactly the point of the reviewer linked above--i.e., the other guys missed the whole point of the story entirely. (Since the movie's based on a true event, Lynch would have perhaps taken lots of license in creating the dark underside to the film.)
All of which leaves me to wonder: what good is symbolism or allegory running beneath the obvious, surface story if hardly anyone gets it?
I'm struggling with this question in writing my current manuscript, Vain Empires. (The title is taken from a line in Milton's Paradise Lost.) On the surface the story is my trademark "Seatbelt Suspense." But it contains quite a bit of symbolism about the fall of man--and how Satan, through his temptation of Adam and Eve, taught man to pursue "vain empires" instead of believing in God.
I keep wondering how many readers are going to see all the symbolism in my novel. I'm thinking--particularly because of the genre in which I write--perhaps not many. In a large way I foment "surface reading." I try to write suspenses that are fast-paced with twists and chapter hooks. My readers get into the groove of trying to figure out the twists before I spring 'em. With all the action going on, even smart readers may miss underlying symbolism. And the majority of my readers are Christians. How much less, then, would a non-Christian reader see the symbolism? And these are the folks who'd need to see it most. Now if I relied on that symbolism as the only Christian content in the novel--in other words, wrote in a "Christian worldview," as it's often labeled, but saying nothing about God in the surface story--would the story "work" if most people never see the underlying message--the point of the book?
I'm apt to think the book "works" if a reader finds it good suspense. That's what it's supposed to be. If the surface story rocks--hey, I've done my job as an entertainer. But the deeper side of me--the side that wants my stories to mean more than only what's on the surface--would be disappointed.
Some in the Christian writing world are apt to hold up Jesus and his parables as examples of how our storytelling should be. In Jesus' day those who got it got it, and those who didn’t, well, too bad for them. In fact nobody got it until he explained the parables to a select few. But is that really an example to take for my own writing? Do I want my novels to be that hard to “unpack?”
I asked some other writers about this, and here's how one responded (used with permission):
I am not of the camp that believes that we can write allegory with religious themes to our modern audience and expect them to see that other layer below the story. Blind eyes have enough trouble discerning John 3:16, let alone something I turn into an allegory. Unless allegory is explained to the reader. . . I just don't see the point.
Bottom line for me is this: Why would someone use allegory which essentially obscures the message they want to impart to a great part of their audience? I don't see the point. ESPECIALLY in a society that is becoming increasingly unimaginative and illiterate. IMHO allegory does NOT "reach more.. It "confuses more." And the fact that the only people who "got" the parables were the few who were there later when Jesus EXPLAINED them is my defense. Jesus told PERFECT stories. . . . and still the majority of the people remained clueless. Now He had an eternal purpose in doing that and He was God. That was a specific time in history meant for a specific people. I don't think it was an example for me to follow in my writing life.
What are your thoughts on this--for my writing, for your own, for CBA fiction in general?