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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Do Endings Matter?

I remember the first time I saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I’d stayed up late to watch it on PBS, a grainy film, shot in color but so monochrome it might as well have been black and white, hilarious songs and bits I could already nearly recite by heart from having listened to an LP until the needle had worn through to the other side, and then came… the ending.

Actually, that movie never ends. It just stops. Police arrive on the scene, hustle the cast into squad cars. One patrolman puts a hand in front of the camera and orders the film to stop, and that’s it.

Ha-ha. Joke’s on you, Viewer.

I went to bed distinctly disappointed and cheated feeling. Of course the movie still has a lot to recommend it. The bridge scene – “What is your quest?” – alone is worth three other movies combined.

I had a similar reaction when I read David Foster Wallace’s Broom of the System. It’s a great book, zany and brilliant and sad, but then about ten pages from the end, I began to get uneasy. “Damn,” I thought, “how’s he going to wrap all this up?” He doesn’t. There’s just a non sequitur of a non-ending, reminiscent in its jokey inconclusiveness of The Holy Grail. Ditto for Giles Goat Boy. Great book, but the ending, I mean, what the hell? On the other hand, it’s been a long time since I read that one; maybe the ending’s better than I recall.

I get it. Really I do. We high-falutin post-moderns know endings are for squares. Anyway, if three hundred fifty-two pages of a book are fantastic, who cares about the last ten pages? Does the ending really matter?

I can now say with complete conviction, yes, it does.

A good ending fulfills the promise the rest of the story has made. It leaves the reader richer than it found him. Not that an ending has to be happy nor that it must tie everything up; it just has to feel like an ending. Endings don’t have to close everything down, they shouldn’t. They should open the story up. They can be inconclusive; Grapes of Wrath ends with, for lack of a better word, a promise. They don’t have to and probably shouldn’t end with a moral, and tricky endings such as “it was all a dream” should be shunned. (On the other hand, that’s exactly how Alice in Wonderland ends, and that’s a great book!) But just as a beautiful day isn’t complete without a sunset, a novel isn’t complete without an ending, an ending unique to that novel.

Think of some of the great endings you’ve read. The beautiful end of Moby Dick when Ishmael, hanging to Quequeg’s coffin, is rescued by The Rachel. Poor Don Quixote, finally cured of his madness by the curate. The end of Huck Finn when he resolves to light out for the territory. Dumb Charles Bovary finally learning how his wife deceived him, and forgiving her. The end of Christmas Carol when Tiny Tim blesses us, everyone. Okay, that last one’s pretty corny, but it’s still damn effective.

I just read the “first pass pages” of my second novel. (Paradise Dogs, due out Summer 2011 from Thomas Dunne Books, and a dandy present for all occasions.) I’ve read the thing so many times that although there are some places that are still fresh and surprising to me, frankly, I’ve squeezed about any pleasure out of looking at it again. But then I came to the ending.


If I say so myself, I’m very, very good at endings.

No, a book is not about the ending, but bearing in mind that the ending is the last gift the novel offers the reader, a writer has fallen short who has not given it very special attention.

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