Tom Sutcliffe: The bitter ending

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The Independent Online

In what circumstances is it acceptable for a work of art to cheat us? Or, to put it another way, why is that we sometimes complain that a novel or a film has taken us for a ride ("colloq. to tease, to mislead deliberately, to hoax, to cheat") while at other times we celebrate the fact that we have been taken for a ride ("device on which one rides at an amusement park or fair"). I ask the question in the light of a localised cluster of twist endings – two of them in recently published novels and one at the conclusion of Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island. I might as well confess right away that I don't know what the twist is in the case of the Scorsese film, only that there is one and that it has provoked yelps of complaint from those who have seen the film. Comparisons have been drawn with The Sixth Sense – and they haven't always been flattering to Scorsese.

These days it would be easy enough to find out what the twist is; just Google and it's there, helpfully flagged with a spoiler warning. But since I haven't yet seen Shutter Island I can't quite bear to do it to myself. I know, logically, that any film that isn't worth seeing twice isn't worth seeing once, so it really shouldn't matter. And I know that the high-minded cineaste shouldn't invest so much in big-dipper narrative jolts. But I want to guess for myself. And that, I suppose, is part of the answer to the question. We don't mind when everything about a project warns us in advance that there may be trapdoors beneath our feet. Shutter Island is a knowing exercise in gothic film – a genre in which the fireplace that suddenly swivels to reveal an unsuspected corridor isn't a breach of narrative ethics but an indispensable pleasure.

It's a little different when what you're consuming conceals its own purposes more carefully. I have to proceed cautiously, because I have no wish to throw up spoilers, but I think it's safe to say that neither Tim Pears's novel Landed nor Richard Aronowitz's book It's Just the Beating of My Heart end in a place that one in ten thousand of their readers will have predicted.

Indeed, they exploit to a large degree our complacent assumptions about what can happen in a conventional literary novel – or how psychology operates. They exploit our assumption that if it isn't mentioned it isn't important, which means that a novelist doesn't always have to actively conceal things. In both cases I felt a stab of irritation on discovering what the novelist had known for some time but I hadn't.

Curiously, it persists with the Aronowitz novel in a way that it hasn't with the Tim Pears, and it isn't very easy to say why. Neither of them shamelessly cheats – in the sense of breaking an internal logic or creating false witnesses. And the Tim Pears novel can even reasonably claim that it explicitly tells the reader what is going on. But, whereas one feels that Aronowitz's book has pulled off a clever piece of sleight of hand, and is broadly exhausted by that discovery, the Pears unsettles in quite a different way.

Perhaps it's just that I guessed too early in the Aronowitz – and saw the smoke and mirrors before the conjuror reached his "reveal". Perhaps its just that I still can't decide what to make of Pears's ending and have suspended a verdict in the interim.

But I think it may be this: you suspect Aronowitz's novel is built around its twist and wouldn't exist otherwise. With Pears's book you get the oddest sense that the novelist may have been as surprised by his readers by what finally happened. One is a trick (and a good one). The other is a mystery, which is something else altogether.

A catalogue of absurdity

I find myself moved to found a campaign for intelligible catalogue essays by the book that accompanies the Serpentine Gallery's current Richard Hamilton show – Modern Moral Matters. This includes some worthwhile texts: there's an essay by Michael Bracewell, which at least has the virtue of being comprehensible enough for readers to judge whether they agree with it or not. And there are revealing pieces by the artist himself, which genuinely throw some light on his aesthetic interests. But the catalogue leads off with an essay of almost comical opacity by Benjamin H D Buchloch. I assume it has been translated from the original German. What a pity they didn't choose to translate it into English, instead of the weird idioglossia employed by art academics. Declaring that Hamilton's oeuvre is one of "the 20th-century's grand artistic menetekels", Buchloch continues by summarising it as "a hermetically sealed synthesis of contradictions, fusing an aesthetically blasphemous affirmation of the newly established mass-cultural reigns of design and advertisement". Time for an annual prize I think – to encourage writing about art that aims at a readership larger than a handful of tenured academics. And reward that which deserves to get it.

* I love the daring behind Tom Morris's intriguing, age-shifted production of Romeo and Juliet, which has just opened at the Bristol Old Vic. In his version the scene is set in the Verona Elder Care Unit and the star-crossed lovers are played by Sian Phillips and Michael Byrne, thwarted in their love not by their parents, who aren't around any longer to object, but by their fretful middle-aged children, who think that this late passion is unseemly. I don't know whether this idea will come off or not, but one thing in its favour is that an audience's ruffled feathers at what's been done to Shakespeare is nicely aligned with the sense of transgressed social rules in the play. It also expands the territory of calculated Shakespearian experiment beyond the already well-trodden fields of male-for-female and black-for-white (as in the excellent Caribbean Measure for Measure at the National many years ago). I look forward to the brat-camp Lear, in which the protagonist isn't a white-haired old man, but a horribly spoiled 16-year old, confronted with the fact that the sovereign rule of his own whim is drawing to an end – and storming off into the night for the tantrum to end all tantrums.

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