Questions in Fiction

Asking questions is one of those mundane, everyday activities that characterize the way we speak and write. Some individuals ask a great many questions, while others ask one or two and more commonly none at all. I sense that questioning as a mode of conversation, indeed, as a way of thinking, may be a central personality dimension.

My hunch is that it is strongly associated with a philosophical turn of mind, a general skepticism about most beliefs and assertions, at least, a continuing effort to look more deeply into the claims of others whether they are expressed in conversation or on the printed page.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the role of asking questions in fiction. I first began to realize that authors vary widely in their use of questions in reading Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier. In reading Night Train to Lisbon I was not deliberately looking for passages that posed questions. It was only after finishing the book and began to look closely at those I had recorded that I realized how many were framed this way.

In fact, of the 120 passages I recorded from the book, a number that may be the most in my reading history by a sizable margin, 47 (40%) included at least one question. I began to wonder if questioning also played a similar role in the passages I recorded from other books that meant a lot to me.

I copied 46 passages from Ian McEwan’s Saturday, a book I enjoyed every bit as much as Night Train to Lisbon but of these quotations, only 15% included at least one question. Similarly, I recorded 47 passages in Philip Roth’s Exist Ghost and of these only 15% included a question. And of the 83 passages I recorded in Eliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, just 8% included a question.

It is clear from this small sample that questioning is not a critical feature of the novels I like most. I may enjoy that style of writing and tend to think that way myself, but it probably plays little if any role in my reading preferences. Henry Perowne, the central character in Ian McEwan’s Saturday is depicted as a deeply reflective man who spends a good part of that day at least, wondering about a wide range of topics. But his reflections are rarely formulated as questions.

Many of the questions in Night Train to Lisbon are also posed for rhetorical effect rather than a direct answer. That is, the answer is simply implied by the question. Prado, the Portuguese physician-author, asks:

Why hadn’t there been anybody before in his life who understood him so fast and so easily?

Is it so that everything we do is done out of fear of loneliness?...Why else do we hold on to all these broken marriages, false friendships, boring birthday parties?

We humans: what do we know of one another?

Clearly he implies that we know very little. Still he wants the reader to consider the issue and give some thought to the implications of the implied answer. It is a style of writing that encourages an internal dialogue for any reader who takes the text seriously.

Posing questions of almost any kind, regardless of their function, usually sets me off in another direction as my mind wanders off the page. Above all, I read more actively as I consider the questions or make all those associations it engenders from a lifetime of experience. In a way, I join with the author who, with his questions, invites me to join with him in telling his tale. It is a reading experience at its best