The Genre of Inscrutability

I recently watched a show called Bee and Puppycat: Lazy in Space with my kids. The show has had an interesting life, starting as a web short, kickstarting a full series, and then getting a sort of semi-sequel series on Netflix that encapsulates the earlier versions in the first couple episodes. For what it’s worth, I only watched the Netflix series.

The show is a silly and deeply weird cartoon about a lazy girl named Bee and an interdimensional space puppy/cat/thing. Bee is fired from her job for the aforementioned laziness, and Puppycat helpfully takes her to the interdimensional temp agency to do strange odd jobs across the universe every time the pair needs a little cash.

At first glance, Bee and Puppycat is just a goofy cartoon, but it is so strange that I found myself thinking about it quite a bit once we had finished the series. Like a curious kid, I wanted to take this show apart and try to understand how it works.

The Legacy of Adventure Time

Adventure Time was a cartoon that exploded into pop culture. It combined absurdism, surrealism, and what I now think of as millennial-style non-sequitur humor with storylines that took unexpectedly emotional turns and occasionally addressed serious topics from silly angles. While it started as ostensibly a kids’ show, it grew a fanbase that was largely young adults.

Adventure Time changed in tone over the course of its ten seasons, perhaps due to a change in show-runners, influence from its fan-base, or its creative staff getting older. The earlier seasons are whimsical and light, often silliness for silliness sake, while the later seasons seem more burdened by the serious undertones, a little more self-conscious, but also trying to be more than just a series of goofy bits.

Clearly, a lot of cartoon television talent was cultivated around the show, because people involved in Adventure Time have gone on to work on many other well-crafted shows. Among that diaspora, the influence of Adventure Time and its aesthetics are clear. Stephen Universe, Over the Garden Wall, and Bee and Puppycat all share some of that Adventure Time DNA.

The Genre of Inscrutability

The world of Bee and Puppycat is strange and mysterious, and we’re dropped right in the middle of it. Initially, it has some of the trappings of the mundane world. A girl losing her job at the café and needing to do odd jobs to make ends meet is a fairly ordinary premise. But this quickly spirals into stranger and stranger territory. What kind of creature is Puppycat, and where is he from? Is Bee actually a robot? Why is her landlord a small child, and why does his comatose mother cry magical tears that transform everything they touch? Why is pretty much everything and everyone on her island home so bizarre, and yet nobody seems to care?

Mysterious settings aren’t uncommon. In fact, they’re a great way to pull the audience into a story. Pretty much all speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy and some horror) create a secondary world that the audience has to figure out. And while older examples of these genres might have front-loaded exposition and lengthy prologues, time and experience have shown that the most effective way to get into this kind of story is to throw the audience right into the middle of it, and help them to figure it out as they go along.

The implicit promise in most of these stories is that the setting is a puzzle that the audience will be able to solve, piece by piece. At the beginning of the Lord of The Rings, all we know about are hobbits and the Shire and a weird old guy named Gandalf. It’s only later that we learn about elves and dwarves and orcs and ents and more elves and the Numenorians and the Maiar, etc., etc. The extreme fans will read and re-read and glean all the little hidden details, and spend hours debating what the heck Tom Bombadil is. But even the average reader will know quite a lot about Middle Earth by the time they get to the end of the third book. Tolkein lays it all out on the page.

What’s interesting about Bee and Puppycat is that it takes place in a mysterious world full of interesting details, but it doesn’t do much to explain how they all fit together. It doesn’t lay everything out. The setting is a puzzle, but the pieces are all mixed up, and a few of them might be missing altogether.

I’ve started to think of this kind of story as the Genre of Inscrutability.

A Very Bad Idea That Seems to Work Anyway

To be in the Genre of Inscrutability, a story has to have a few key things:

  1. A fantastical setting – it may be similar to the real world, or wildly different, but it’s clear that the setting has some unreal rules at play.
  2. The fantastical elements aren’t explicitly addressed.
  3. There’s some mechanism to make that okay

    Now, thing number one is straightforward enough, but thing number two immediately gets us into trouble. Good storytellers know that you don’t show the gun on the mantle unless it’s going to go off, and you don’t set up a mystery that you don’t intend to resolve. The resolution of the mystery and the catharsis that comes out of it are necessary to make a mystery story feel complete. Thing number two seems like a Very Bad Idea from a storytelling standpoint, which is what makes it interesting.

    The big question, then, is how do we do thing number three? How do we make it okay? To answer that, I think it’s helpful to look at more examples.

    Examples

    The Bee and Puppycat series hints at Puppycat’s past without actually explaining very much. We’re shown what Bee is, but it’s never explained why she was created, or where her “father” is. I still have no idea what’s up with Cardamon or his mom. However, Bee and Puppycat isn’t really about these things at a structural level. The episodes tend to focus on relationships and interactions between Bee and the other characters, or occasionally just between the other characters.

    Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris stories also contain unexplained mysteries. The city is founded on the ruins of a much older (perhaps much more advanced) city inhabited by the mushroom dwellers. The mushroom dwellers go into hiding beneath the city, and collect the refuse the city-dwellers leave behind. While individual mushroom dwellers are superficially weak, it is implied that they are collectively powerful—enough to completely empty the city of inhabitants during The Silence, and perhaps to retake the city permanently in some indistinct future. Who or what they are is never really explained. However, the city and its history are just backdrops to these stories. The mushroom dwellers make it clear that the city itself is a transitory state. There was a before, and there will be an after. They are a natural, elemental force set in opposition to the crass, industrial humanity of Ambergris.

    Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a book about a book about a film that tells the story of Will Navidson and his family moving into an old house, which slowly reveals itself to be a supernaturally shifting non-Euclidian space. The book relies on the multiply nested frame stories and footnotes to construct a sense of verisimilitude as well as mystery. Though all of it is fictional, receiving the story through a game of telephone with multiple unreliable narrators only adds to the intrigue. It feels like stumbling into a particularly vivid and heavily documented conspiracy theory.

    Did the Navidson Record ever actually exist, or is it just the crazed ramblings of Zampano? Did the house itself ever exist? And if it did, how did it come to be? How long has it been there? We are never given answers to any of these questions. Instead, we are expected to wonder.

    How to Make It Okay

    The Genre of Inscrutability builds a setting full of mysteries that it doesn’t intend to resolve. This is not to be confused with something like LOST, a very unfortunate show that intended to resolve its mysteries and catastrophically failed to do so. Here, we are talking about purposeful inscrutability.

    As we see in Bee and Puppycat, one way to make this okay is to keep that mystery separate from the tension and catharsis. If the story is about whether the main character will follow his dreams and leave his small town to go to culinary school, his mysterious island home is just interesting set-dressing. When he overcomes his fears and decides to go, the tension is resolved in a satisfying way. The mysterious setting is still present, but it’s not blocking the satisfying resolution of the story.

    Ambergris shows another possibility: a setting so grandiose in scope that it is not fully knowable. I cannot know every nook and cranny of my home city. I certainly cannot know all of its long history. Likewise, Ambergris is a setting with fuzzy edges. We might know some of its history, its inhabitants, its streets and buildings, but we cannot know all of it. There is vague malice lurking beyond the torn edges of the map, monsters that might just come up out of the ground one night and whisk everyone away. Such a setting makes the characters feel small and weak in a very big and dangerous world.

    House of Leaves fully leans into the mystery. The mystery is entirely central to the book. The book itself is a puzzle box, a literary game. It doesn’t give away all the clues, because that would be too easy. You have to want the answers and work for them. You can theorize and guess, but at the end of the day, the book just winks, shrugs, and walks away. It’s up to you to convince yourself you’re right, based on the evidence at hand. House of Leaves forces the reader into the position of the conspiracy theorist, just like its numerous narrators.

    In Medias Res

    When I was a young whippersnapper, I once accidentally read the sixth book in a seven-book series. I didn’t know it was part of a series. I didn’t find out until I got to the end and found the whole series listed out. It was a very disconcerting experience. It is the ultimate form of in medias res.

    This is exactly the experience that the Genre of Inscrutability cultivates, but it’s a dangerous game. Some readers won’t put up with it. I have no doubt that all of the stories I talked about above have left readers and viewers behind. Not everyone wants to work to enjoy a story, and no matter how the inscrutable story tries to make it okay, it is requiring extra effort from the audience.

    On the other hand, the inscrutable story offers a real depth of experience to a dedicated fan. One need only look at the wikis, forums and social media conversations to see that fans of this kind of content derive a huge amount of satisfaction from combing through every detail of the work, and then discussing it with other fans. But woe unto the author who accidentally inserts some small error that the fans latch on to as a meaningful clue. Even if you don’t intend to reveal all the answers, internal consistency is still important.

    If you know of any other stories that you think fall into the Genre of Inscrutability, let me know in the comments. I’d love to find other examples.

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