The movie Life of Pi is coming out in theaters soon. I won’t be a spoiler monkey but every time I see the trailer, I’m just reminded of the “jk!” moment at the end of this book. The author pulls you in to his increasingly fantastic tail, and then he pulls the rug out from under you at the very end.
Let’s call this the “jk” effect. There’s actually a lot of debate these days about whether or not adding “Lol” or a winky face at the end of an insulting sentence takes all the sting out of the words that preceded it. Kids accused of cyber-bullying are even pulling “the emoticon defense”—the premise of which is that it’s okay to say something horrible as long as you put a J after it.
This defense isn’t holding up too well in court, which is sort of comforting, I suppose. But what about the jk effect in stories? Sometimes the entire story is based on pulling the rug out from under the reader. For example, we just read Saki’s classic short story “The Open Window” in my ninth grade class, and that story is built on—literally—a jk moment. The character of Vera convincingly spins a frightening ghost story for a stranger, and sets him up to be scared nearly to death—all for her own amusement. It’s an old story, but one can very easily imagine this girl with a cell phone in her hand, Instagramming a picture of the poor dude’s face as he runs away screaming.
In YA, the jk effect might considered alongside the “To Be Continued…” effect. You’re reading, and you think you’re going to find out what happens to the MCs by the time you reach the last page, but…just kidding! Book II coming in May 2014!... ;)
Sometimes the jk is really well done: I’d cite the central relationship of City of Bones as an example of an effective one. Again, I won’t spoiler it for anyone, but I think Cassandra Clare gets a lot of mileage out of the mistaken identity, making the moment when things are straightened out that much more powerful. This one is more of a “wow” or an "I knew it!" than a “jk.” What’s the difference? It's completely subjective...but...that moment in the new Breaking Dawn film, when Jacob dismisses the events of the previous three films with one sentence? (Everything you thought you felt was because of Nessie, Bella!). That felt like a jk to me. Then again, that film is actually predicated on an even bigger jk.
A cruel jk is a major part of the plot in Will Grayson, Will Grayson, but this time it’s not the author pulling the strings, but a character. One of the Wills (the lower-case one) is devastated when he finds out that the boy he’s had an online relationship with is actually his friend Maura messing with him. The internet is probably the birthplace of the true jk moment, actually, because it’s the perfect place to have an unreal relationship. Online we all hide behind avatars and screen names, and it’s all too easy to publish a lie and call it the truth.
That one's less a jk than a betrayal—but I think worst-case scenario, an author’s jk can become a betrayal. For example, imagine if Harry Potter book 7 had ended with Harry waking up in the Dursely’s, realizing it was all a dream.
The just kidding moment is probably part of our culture at this point, though. We’re post-post modern these days: we like our superheroes jaded and nearly broken (witness the latest installments of Batman and James Bond). The true jk moment involves twisting a knife—figuratively, at least—at least a little. I’m not an emoticon expert, but if there’s a snarky smirk-face emoji, that’s probably the face of the jk. In a world of instant and constant communication, we feel collectively free to say whatever we feel at every moment. The thing is, when I was a teenager, those fleeting moments of venting weren’t posted online—they weren’t going to be accessible, in print, forever. And some things you say can’t unsay with all the smiley faces in the world.
Maybe the true test of the jk, in art or in life, is whether or not it ends with a smile (or a wow)…or a L. Once you’re in on the scam, you want to be impressed with the ingenuity it took to lure you in. Not feel like you’ve wasted your money or your time. Or like an idiot because of an imaginary tiger. (Jk? ;)