For some reason, suspense and the contemporary novel don’t seem to mix all that much.
Insomuch as suspense is a fairly key element of storytelling, I don’t think we need to couch a discussion of suspense in terms of “genre” fiction versus “literary” fiction. Instead we can ponder why suspense is often squeezed out of many contemporary novels.
Classically, the selective omission of information and methodical pacing are employed to imbue a plot with suspense. Here the stingy storyteller parcels out information bit by bit to satisfy the hungry reader who works to piece together the fractured details. But to provide just a puzzle is not enough to bring about the painful pleasure of suspense. There must be peril, uncertainty, or unease as well - dark clouds on the horizon or just overhead.
Hitchcock was a master here. He could imbue a story with menace, build up expectations of a disaster and string the viewer along until the string was taut to the point of breaking. And more recently, some contemporary novelists have experimented with suspense, testing its limits and breaking its rules - I’m thinking Paul Auster here and The Horned Man by James Lasdun, a suspenseful favorite of mine.
Many modern novelists seem to eschew suspense, however. They willfully remove the story from the heat before it can reach a boil. A flash-forward or flashback will reveal some critical point in the early going, and the reader’s focus is guided back to subtleties.
In The Cottagers, Marshall Klimasewiski sticks with the
suspense. First, it is the menacing
sort. From the opening pages, when we
first meet creepy, young Cyrus, peering through the brush at his new temporary
neighbors, we know something terrible will happen to “the cottagers” who have
arrived for an extended stay in sleepy
The cottagers’ lives are shattered by their trip to East Sooke, but rather than the plot petering out or the unveiling of a moment-of-truth epiphany, that lingering legacy of Joyce (“the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling upon all the living and the dead”), Klimasewiski delivers a payoff here that is completely unexpected and prompts the reader to reassess the entire book.
Hitchcock’s memorable silhouette comes to mind once again, pointing to Norman Bates’ mother.
Suspense, in itself, is not enough to sustain a story. As the storyteller builds suspense, the reader subconsciously builds expectations and comes to expect revelatory plots points that conform to those expectations. The skilled storyteller can take that built up emotional capital and shatter it with a final virtuoso twist that confounds everything that comes before it. The epiphany was meant to replace this final twist in fiction, to evolve it. As James Joyce and his many descendants have shown us, the epiphany can elevate fiction in its way, but readers should not deny themselves the satisfaction of suspense.