I’ve started watching “The Umbrella Academy” on Netflix. I think it’s bad for a number of reasons, but what’s annoyed me most that it’s predictable. SPOILER ALERT— which isn’t really a spoiler because it’s, um, predictable—but whenever a new character shows up with intentions that are meant to be concealed from us, those intentions are, on the contrary, obvious; whenever a character presents one way, it’s obvious they are, in fact, the opposite. “The Queen’s Gambit,” which everyone loves soooo much, is similarly plagued, though its contrivances are worse for being kinda racist and stupidly utopian (read: the Black Angel (who *didn’t* see that coming?) and the ludicrous meritocracy of chess). Fine. The thing is, there’s a slim line between the predictable and what, instead, powerfully ratifies our suspicions, which, when it happens, is enjoyable. Take a writer like Elizabeth Strout, who is expert at seeding her fiction with clues and foreshadowing that, when sprouted, make us feel smart (not bored) for having been right. A story like “Incoming Tide” is a great example. It begins:
“The bay had small whitecaps and the tide was coming in, so the smaller rocks could be heard moving as the water shifted them. Also there was the twanging sound of the cables hitting the masts of the sailboats moored. A few seagulls gave squawking cries as they dove down to pick up the fish heads and tails and shining insides that the boy was tossing from the dock as he cleaned the mackerel. All this Kevin saw as he sat in his car with the windows partly open. The car was parked on the grassy area, not far from the marina. Two trucks were parked farther over, on the gravel by the dock.
How much time went by, Kevin didn’t know.”
I love this opening so much. The way Strout establishes, thematically, the story’s hierarchy right away (landscape first—or what the landscape represents—then Kevin; note how different this opener would have read had it begun: Kevin saw the bay…); the way Strout picks out particular details that *Kevin* saw, which tells us a lot more about Kevin than the vista before him. I mean, me sitting next to Kevin, I might not have zeroed in on the fish heads, the squawking, and twanging sounds; I might have noticed, instead, the breeze, the sun blazing on the water, etc. So already we’re learning that Kevin’s in a dark-ish place and that he’s been brooding there for a while (hierarchy! Time first, Kevin second). The result? The story wants me to suspect something bad is happening here. And, SPOILER ALERT, something bad *is* happening. But instead of being annoyed, I’m delighted! I sensed it was coming, and it did. So, really, what’s the difference between preparing a reader, a viewer, for what’s to come—hinting at it, gesturing—and just showing your hand too early? And is that really the right breakdown? Maybe when we say something is predictable, the problem isn’t that we know what’s coming but that what’s coming is itself predictable. Like: the Black Angel come to save a drug-addled white girl. Except there are tropes strewn throughout “Incoming Tide,” and so maybe it’s just good old execution that’s to blame. Though I can’t say I accept that, either.
The old saw about a great ending is that it needs to be inevitable and totally surprising. But these are not really simultaneous. In reading, you feel surprised at first and then, on reflection, understand that of course it had to end this way. So where does the predictable fit in?
I wonder, too, what role age has in terms of our rapport with the predictable. My daughter, now 6, loves to play this word game with me where she says a word and then I have to come up with a word that rhymes. Stuck, pluck. “I knew you’d say ‘pluck’!” she yells, blown up with joy. But what’s she so happy about? That she knows me so well or that, for a second in time, the uncertainty that is her life was belied? One day she’ll stop playing this game and shortly before she stops, she’ll roll her eyes when I produce exactly the word she expected. What will have happened between now and then? Familiarity breeds contempt—maybe. But probably what will happen is that she will have started to associate uncertainty with freedom.
I could go on, but, alas, it’s getting late and I want to watch another episode of “The Umbrella Academy” before bed.
Happy New Year, folks. In 2021, I’m gonna try to meet all of you in person.