restricted access Real Mysteries: Narrative and the Unknowable by H. Porter Abbott (review)
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Reviewed by
H. Porter Abbott. Real Mysteries: Narrative and the Unknowable. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2013. x + 178 pp.

What is a real mystery, and how might a fictional construction supply us with one? For H. Porter Abbott, “real mysteries” are narrative questions that remain unresolved. Borrowing novelist Tim O’Brien’s observation that the resolution of a mystery is effectively its fatal undoing, Abbott goes in search of stories that preserve their narrative mysteries by thwarting the reader’s quest for knowledge. Traversing a range of texts, from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights to Samuel Beckett’s high modernism and from the short stories of Alice Munro and J. M. Coetzee to Michael Haneke’s feature film Caché, Abbott asks us to consider not only the aesthetic or hermeneutical implications of unknowability but also the way in which we respond to it as a real experience. Our encounters with unresolved mysteries, argues Abbott, force us to grapple with the “palpable unknown”—to come up against a gap in knowledge but also to feel that gap, even as we are possessed by the desire to close it (3). Certain types of narrative can encourage such experiences, inviting readers to become “immersed in the condition of unknowing.”

Real Mysteries pursues the unknowable across a range of contexts, moving from the “cognitive sublime” of unknowable selves and emergent worlds (35) to the “neural sport” of contradictory or multivalent sentences and stories (65) and from “egregious” (112) narrative gaps to “unreadable” fictional minds (124). Do all of these types of unknowability belong together, though? At times, the category of the unknowable seems stretched to the limit. In chapter 4, for example, Abbott gets caught up in the question of whether the multi-path sentence (in which contradictory meanings can coexist without canceling each other out) has a counterpart at the level of narrative. Pointing out the dearth of narrative examples, he inadvertently raises the question of whether the written sentence is the best starting point for such an inquiry. Having set up a narrow categorical band occupied by narratives that are multivalent enough to suggest something more than productive ambiguity yet not so multivalent as to engender “parallel universes,” he then struggles to populate it with examples (99). And would such examples really suggest unknowability or something else altogether? Similarly, the fantastical Gabriel García Márquez story discussed in chapter 2, in which unpredictable events and observations drive the narrative forward, seems like a weak example of unknowability when placed against the narrational aporias of Beckett’s Trilogy or Haneke’s Caché. What holds the book together, however, is the question of whether the various mysteries it outlines can, or should, be rescued and restored to certainty through processes of interpretation and meaning-making. [End Page 362]

Indeed, it is on this ground that Abbott makes his strongest contribution, carefully threading his way among existing accounts of unknowability while arguing that we should preserve narrative mysteries from recuperative acts of interpretation (even as he insists on our native desire to solve them). Here, he is at pains to distance himself from poststructuralist notions of the perpetual deferral of meaning through language. “Our knowledge and its means of conveyance are . . . good enough,” he announces (8). Taking a cognitivist approach, he focuses instead on the potential for narratives to offer “intentionally induced states of unknowing” (9). At the same time, he seeks to go beyond cognitivist narratology’s conventional path of inquiry, arguing that the privileging of narrative dynamics has caused scholars to overlook those points at which “narrative halts” (22). Above all, he is interested in the experiential dimension of unknowing.

Abbott’s cognitivist approach is built on the assumption that we are hardwired for narrative. On this basis, he grants himself license to leave to one side the historical context of narrative unknowability. That is to say, he chooses not to engage with the question of why narrative gaps, unreadable characters, and incommensurable worlds became such a feature of modern and postmodern narratives during the twentieth century. Accepting Abbott’s approach therefore involves accepting the notion that narrative’s underlying appeal is primarily the outcome of evolutionary rather than cultural...