The Sense of an Ending

The Guardian carries this piece by Lee Rourke, in which Lee criticises the desire for closure in fiction. Here’s an extract:

The well-worn formula beginning/middle/end is the default mode for pretty much all of the commercial and ‘literary’ novels that currently jostle for ascendancy on our bookshelves. We like our entertainment to make immediate sense, or if it doesn’t at first, it should explain all at the end. Repeat ad infinitum. I would argue there is something crucial lacking in this formula: the power of ambiguity. Closure belittles the complexities of meaning: our meaning, our being here. So what does this desire for closure say about us as readers? Why are we so fearful of ambiguity? Why do we desire novels that, to paraphrase Alain Robbe-Grillet, do the ‘reading’ for us?

Life isn’t like the narratives that make up the majority of novels in circulation today, or like the well-rehearsed scenes we enjoy at the theatre, or in the movies. It’s more complicated than that: steeped in confusion, dead ends, blank spaces and broken fragments. It’s baffling at times, annoying and perpetually open-ended. We have no real way of predicting our future. So why do our novels have to tie all this stuff together, into a neatly packaged bundle of ready-made answers? Something doesn’t ring true.

I read a hell of a lot of contemporary fiction, and the majority of these works, good and bad, are riddled with the same conscious/unconscious desire for the narrative to end.  I can sense this peculiar event just over halfway into most novels: all those random elements that I ordinarily love suddenly begin to act rather oddly: they stop fizzing, they begin to unify, to all move in the same direction, hurtling towards the same fixed point with great force. This event is the author’s doing, of course, forcing chaos towards order and natural events to act unnaturally. The author fears ambiguity, but more importantly the author fears the reader’s own fears of ambiguity, and this double-edged event makes for a rather predictable read.

It’s no surprise that most novels are ruined by their forced ‘endings’; by our collective desire for them to conclude in an orderly fashion, so that we can get on with our lives after we have closed the book (yes, The Road, I’m looking at you). Marx that told us the novel is a bourgeois construct, its very form reflecting the demands of the bourgeoisie who gave it sovereignty. We hold up our novels like vanity mirrors, hoping to reflect our own dreams, conceits, and liberal aspirations. Duly satisfied with our novels’ conclusions, we put them back down, happy and content. A week later all is forgotten, the previous novel has disappeared from our lives and we’ve moved on to another that’s hopefully a little bit more entertaining.

There’s a lot to be said for Lee’s approach, it’s the journey not the destination, and every reader’s had that hollow feeling at the end of a novel where everything is explained. However, if life is not much like standard narrative fiction, it is not much like Beckett or Joyce either. Life, after all, has a very definite beginning, middle and end. Things that happen in reality don’t conform to conventional story patterns but neither do we live in a state of incidentless and changeless ambiguity.

‘London is full of short stories, long stories, epics, farces, sitcoms, sagas, soaps and squibs, walking around hand in hand,’ says John Self in Money. The reason art cannot accurately portray life is that life has too much narrative, not too little. Think of all the people you know, the people you see every day and make time for: it probably runs into dozens. Most of these people are living out their own stories. A modern literary novelist keeps his cast down to single figures because there simply isn’t room in the standard wordcount to do justice to many more lives.

Consider also the power of coincidence. Time and again, reality delivers flukes and miracles and million-to-one chances that fiction just cannot get away with. The spy novelist Jeremy Duns recently wrote about the Petraeus affair, from the point of view of a fiction editor, and concluded: ‘In my own spy novels, I would never dare to write such a story—my readers wouldn’t stand for it.’

In fictional terms, ‘The Petraeus File’ is not just clichéd, but poorly written. Events that only occur as a result of characters’ ineptitude frustrate readers—especially if, as in Petraeus’ case, they are a senior official. As head of the CIA, he will have been extremely familiar with the concept of men being compromised by sexual attraction. As a ‘reader’ of the story, the revelation that he and Broadwell communicated by draft emails in a joint account they set up has a satisfying irony, in that Al Qaeda has used the same technique, but it is still staggeringly naïve. If this had happened in a novel, readers would have flung the book across the room: ‘Come on! The head of the CIA doesn’t even encrypt his own emails?’

All this is to make the assumption that art should provide a flawless mirror to the world, and I don’t necessarily think that’s true - and from my conversations with Lee, I know that he doesn’t think that either. What we are looking for in fiction is something true that we didn’t know – ‘the truth inside the lie’ – and literary experimentalism and commercial storytelling are just different roads to this truth.

(Image: Ministry of Type)

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