Constant spinning: Puzzles that aren’t meant to be solved

WARNING: This post will be talking about The Sorcerer’s House by Gene Wolfe and Inception, and while I’ll try to keep the spoilers light, they will inevitably be there to some degree. If you are spoiler-averse, be wary!

When I left the theater after seeing Inception, I was quite happy with the movie in general, but not thrilled with the ending. I knew, going in, that there had been considerable discussion over the ending, but I did not know any specifics of what people were talking about. Then, once I knew what the ending was, I wasn’t sure that it merited a whole lot of discussion. Yes, there was deliberate ambiguity, but my first reaction was that it was kind of a pointless ambiguity, something that left viewers hanging just to keep them hanging. I didn’t think there would be enough proof in the movie to make a conclusion one way or the other (though (and this link is spoil-tastic!) Michael Caine thinks otherwise). The ambiguity seemed cheap to me, just something to infuriate audiences and keep them guessing. We, the universe of Inception vieweres, probably couldn’t come to a firm agreement one way or the other, and even if we did, so what? Did that have major implications on the movie as a whole?

Then I thought about it more.

It particularly helped that I considered the movie in the light of some of Christopher Nolan’s other movies, especially Memento. Memento is a strong warning that we construct our own reality based on the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, so we better be very careful with those stories. The message of Inception is very much the same–it’s got its wonderful action-movie trappings, but the core of the story is about people who constructed their own reality that seemed idyllic for a time, but then was not, and then became horrific. In both movies, the realities the central characters created for themselves led to terrible consequences. (The Dark Knight could be included in this discussion, for the way in which Batman and Commissioner Gordon shape the reality Gotham needs at the end of the movie, as could The Prestige, for the hidden illusion behind so many of its other illusions, but let’s keep things manageable for now.)

The dream worlds of Inception are curious bits of shared design. Ariadne provides the backdrops of architecture and some of the goodies, and the dreamers supply the people. As the movie progresses, we see that the people entering this shared dream might bring in elements of their own, so what they are seeing as reality is really a strange stew of people’s intentions and people’s subconscious, interacting in ways that are not always predictable.

Which makes it much like the reality we inhabit on a daily basis. That, I think, is the reason for the ambiguity of the ending (which makes it much less pointless than I originally believed). By trying to decide if the ending was real or a dream, we have to draw firm lines between reality and the dream realm, and as we look at the overlap, we see their similarities. We see the role our perceptions of reality, and the things we believe we need from reality, play in shaping that reality. That’s how I would boil down Nolan’s central point of many of his movies–“Be careful about what you believe you need, because those needs will shape your reality.”

The trick about the puzzle of the ending, then, is that I think there’s a good chance it was not meant to be solved. The puzzle was there to spur you to think about what the dreamworld and reality have in common. What actually happened is not as important, for the movie’s purposes, as that overlap.

I just finished reading Gene Wolfe’s The Sorcerer’s House, and I’m not sure if its ending is the same or not. It’s a puzzle, though in Wolfe style it’s one that’s not presented in flashing lights or anything–you could just read through the ending and decide there’s not much of a puzzle at all, and be content. But I’ve read too much Gene Wolfe to believe any ending is simple, and if I think I’m seeing something that points to a puzzle, I’m probably right. The question is, is it a puzzle I’m supposed to find the solution to, or a puzzle that’s fun because it exists? Is this Inception or is it Lolita, whose various puzzles often have solutions that help the reader figure out what was going on behind the scenes while Humbert was in his idyll? (Though let’s be honest here–sometimes those puzzles are just Nabokov screwing around.)

I’ll page through the book some more for clues, and I’ll enjoy doing it. The Sorcerer’s House is fun and energetic, full of typical Gene Wolfe stuff, namely the always-fun unreliable narrator, but not as labyrinthine as The Book of the Short Sun or as deliberately disorienting as Soldier in the Mist. It’s a great Gene Wolfe for those who have never read Gene Wolfe. It’s inspiring me to go back and think about it, which I always appreciate.

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  1. Well, it might help if you said what you thought the ending *was*.

    There’s something amounting to a consensus on Urth.net that the ending of TSH is Bax murdering & replacing his twin (a small faction thinks that this is so blatant and unsubtle that it’s a ruse and the real story is something else – perhaps the twin murdering Bax and pretending to be Bax pretending to be him).

    • Sorry for being vague–I know I put the spoiler alert in the post, but I was still avoiding spoilers as much as possible.

      I love the fact that Bax replacing George is viewed as unsubtle, even though it’s only indirectly hinted at. This is what Gene Wolfe does to us! I think Bax pretending to be George seems likely, though I’m not sure if George was murdered. George getting stuck in fairie–and Bax eventually joining him there–is currently the most likely possibility in my mind. Questions such as how George would get stuck there, and whether it’s voluntary or involuntary, remain in my mind.

  1. October 3rd, 2010
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