(Lev Grossman writes about books here on Wednesdays. Subscribe to his RSS feed.)
My plan for a books column this week was to write about the endings of novels. I swear to God it was – I can show you the notes. But my friend and former editor and all-round superior being Laura Miller was quicker: she wrote that piece last week.
But the thing is, I’ve already written about my favorite January books, and I’m currently obsessed with this book, but it isn’t out till March, and I couldn’t come up with anything else, so I’m going ahead anyway. This column is by way of a response to Laura’s. Though I don’t actually disagree with her, or not directly. It’s a critical conversation!
I started thinking about the endings of novels not because I think endings are so important, but because I think they’re actually not as important as they’re sometimes given credit for. According to conventional wisdom, the ending of a book is supposed to sum up the book’s meaning in one sublime moment of dramatic closure. But I often find that after a month or two I can’t remember the ends of novels at all, even novels I loved — even detective novels, where the whole (putative) point of the book is the big reveal at the end. Oddly, the meanings of books are defined for me much more by their beginnings and middles than they are by their endings.
(This may or may not run counter to the narrative theory expounded in Frank Kermode’s famous The Sense of an Ending. Kermode didn’t let me into his seminar in grad school, and since then I’ve avoided reading Sense of an Ending out of spite. And how he’s dead. (I also haven’t read Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, which won the Booker Prize this year. At least I’m consistent.))
So for example take, oh, I don’t know, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. I can tell you what happens to all the characters at the end of The Corrections, because I’ve read it five times, but I’m pretty sure that makes me an outlier. Hardly anybody remembers the end of Chip’s story (spoiler alert: neurologist, twins). What readers remember is Chip with a salmon down his pants at the fancy grocery store. (I look forward to seeing Ewan McGregor re-enact that one on HBO.) To the extent that the book is about Chip, it’s about his misery, Chip Agonistes, not his happiness.
Or take a more Miller-ian example: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. My head tells me that the point of the book is the ending: the kids return to Earth, where they keep a stiff upper lip and carry forward the noble Christian lessons they learned in Narnia, even after Aslan has kicked them out. But my gut knows that the meaning of the book is something more like: it would be really, really cool to go to a secret magic world, and if you ever got there, you would do your very best not to leave, because Earth is way boring by comparison. In other words it’s the middle of the book that held the meaning for me, the sojourn in Narnia, a meaning that the ending couldn’t wrest away from it.
(And even if you’re a Kate Atkinson fan, which I am, I will give you $5 if you can explain the ending of Started Early, Took My Dog without looking.)
(MORE: See Kate Atkinson on the Top 10 Fiction of 2011)
I read a lot of literary theory when I was in graduate school, especially about novels, and the best book I ever read about endings was Peter Brooks’ Reading for the Plot. (Unlike Kermode, Brooks did let me into his seminar in grad school. Though by then he didn’t want to talk about plot anymore, which was disappointing.) Brooks’s understanding of plot draws heavily on Freud, from whose work Brooks derives — deep breath —
a dynamic model which effectively structures ends (death, quiescence, non-narratibility) against beginnings (Eros, stimulation into tension, the desire of the narrative) in a manner that necessitates the middle as détour, as struggle toward the end under the compulsion of imposed delay, as arabesque in the dilatory space of the text … The model suggests further that along the way of the path from beginning to end — in the middle — we have repetitions serving to bind the energy of the text in order to make its final discharge more effective. In fictional plots, these bindings are a system of repetitions which are returns to and returns of, confounding the movement forward to the end with a movement back to origins, reversing meaning within forward-moving time, serving to formalize the system of textual energies, offering the possibility (or the illusion) of “meaning” wrested from “life.”
Well, it was the 1980’s. We all talked like that back then.
Brooks’s vision, if I’m untangling it correctly from all that Derridean je ne sais quoi, is that plot isn’t about endings, necessarily, it’s about the digressions that separate the beginning and the ending. It’s about the long, extended, even protracted middle: that’s where the greatness of a story lies. Chip can’t meet the kinky-haired neurologist right away in The Corrections: that wouldn’t be a satisfying story. Ulysses can’t just sail straight home, or he could, but then there would be no Odyssey. Brooks sees plot as a series of wanderings and distractions and repetitions, trial runs at closure, building up to the real thing, charting a long squiggly course between beginning and ending — even though it looks all the while like the author and the hero are trying their best to chart as short and straight a course to the end as possible. A story has to build up energy and tension, sexual or otherwise, through delay and repetition, before it can give a reader that satisfying release of closure.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy for a writer to pull the trigger, to end a novel, even when the time has come. I’ve heard it said, and I think it’s true, that readers love closure, but writers love ambiguity. Something inside a novelist pushes back against the overly-pat ending, where all the threads get tied up neatly. As a writer of fiction I sometimes feel myself wanting to leave my characters floating in uncertainty at the end, à la the final frame of The Sopranos. “After all, it’s just like life,” I think to myself, “because nothing ever really gets resolved! No story ever really ends! Amirite?” To which my reading self says, yeah, exactly: it’s just like life, and that’s the problem. There’s no Brooksian release. If I wanted uncertainty, I would have stuck with reality! But I didn’t. Fiction is supposed to be an improvement on the real thing.
(The ideal of course is that perfect balance between closure and non-closure: see appendix.)
Nevertheless I think it’s rare, maybe even increasingly so these days, for a novel to sustain its dramatic intensity and integrity right through to the very end – to complete, as it were, that Brooksian arabesque, the full novelistic gesture. Writers these days are so surpassingly skilled at the buildup that they can’t come up with a payoff that matches it. Popular culture is a litany of failed endings, starting with Lost (which admittedly I didn’t watch, but everybody bitches about it, so). In journalistic parlance, their ledes are writing checks that their kickers can’t cash.
In keeping with my interest in middles, I should add that I don’t think that that’s a disaster. Take for example Lars Kepler’s The Hypnotist: I recommend it unreservedly (I put it on my best of the year list), but I have to admit that it doesn’t quite make good on its brilliant setup. Or take Neal Stephenson, whom I consider to be one of the best novelists writing today: he’s famous for his weak endings, and his latest book, Reamde, while great, is no exception. Stephenson is a dazzling stylist, and a scarily smart cultural and technological observer, and he’s funny as hell, but kick-ass endings just aren’t a tool he’s got in his toolkit.
I wonder if novels are becoming more and more vertical: you enjoy them chapter by chapter, the way you now enjoy an album song by song, or a TV show episode by episode, paying less attention to the structure of the whole, and not counting as much on that big gushy release at the end (it’s hard to get away from the sexual metaphors here, sorry, I blame Freud). There are a few writers whom I think of as wonderfully focused on novelistic structure (David Mitchell, Jennifer Egan), but nowadays when I’m chatting about a novel with friends, I almost don’t bother to add, “it kind of fell apart towards the end,” because I’m a bit surprised when a book doesn’t.
Again: not a disaster. A novel with a bad middle is a bad book. A bad ending is something I’ve just gotten in the habit of forgiving.
Appendix: A Slightly Spoilery List of Five Novels That Have Kick-Ass Endings
Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End. You’d want to be sure of your ending with that title, and Ferris is. Completely sure. After an entire book in the first person plural, he modulates for one incredible moment into the first person singular … you have to be there. But if you are, it’s sublime.
Tom Stoppard, “Arcadia.” Cheating, cheating, I know it’s a play. But that last waltz, with Thomasina and Septimus: the graceful full-twisting-flip Stoppard performs in this play is unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced in a work of art. Just when you think it’s all over, you feel the light caressing touch of tragedy on your shoulder, reaching back from early on in the play, and telling you, wait, OK, now it’s really all over. And all of a sudden you wish it weren’t.
A.S. Byatt, Possession. “And on the way home, she met her brothers, and there was a rough-and-tumble, and the lovely crown was broken, and she forgot the message, which was never delivered.” I have plenty of problems with the middle of this book – raise your hands if you, like me, skipped a lot of the poetry – but I love it nonetheless, not least for its graceful coda. It’s like a party trick: it leaves you perfectly balanced between closure and non-closure, like a coin on its edge.
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go. With most novels, when I think of them, I think of a scene from the beginning or the middle. With Never Let Me Go I only think of that aching final tableau: the narrator disappearing in the distance in her car, destination unknown.
Franz Kafka, The Trial. When – on extremely rare occasions – I’m asked what my favorite ending of a novel is, bar none, all-time, I always go for the bleak, brutal, bitter ending of The Trial. “‘Like a dog!’ he said, it was as if the shame of it must outlive him.” For total Brooksian release, I’ve never read anything that can touch it.
LIST: The All-TIME 100 Novels