Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Endings. What are they supposed to be, exactly?

So here's an open question to the readers of this blog. When it comes to endings, what the hell do you want? I ask this because "lousy ending" is perhaps the number one book review complaint. "Promising, but he wrote himself into a corner." "Good book, but the ending was a letdown." I can't tell you how many reviews of my work make criticisms like these. The "wrote himself into a corner" one really rankles, as it suggests that the writer is incompetent--that he doesn't know how to end a book. In my case, when I got that one, I was enraged: I ended the book in question precisely the way I wanted to, and was perfectly satisfied--at the time anyway.

Personally, I am rarely disappointed by a book's ending. Almost never, in fact. If I like a book all the way through, I almost always like the way it ends, too, unless the writer tries some audacious and/or desperate thing that falls flat (I'm sure we can all name a few examples of those). Books that just kind of stop are perfectly OK with me. So are epilogues that describe the future, or flashbacks, or unrequited affairs, or unsolved mysteries.

Ultimately, I don't care what a book is about. All I really care about is the experience of reading it--of the writer's frame of reference to the world, of her way of seeing. Of course I am attracted by certain subjects--crime, artistic endeavor, intense cogitation in narrative--but ultimately it doesn't matter. What's important is the human fabric of the book: the voice, the characters, the way one thought flows into another. I like texture and nuance. I like odd juxtapositions and interesting problems.

I wonder if people who desire certain kinds of endings, or have particular expectations for what an ending should do, are people who care too much what books are about. Could that be the problem? Or is it something else? Because honestly, I have never read a review in which the reviewer suggests alternate endings that would work better. They never say what they want! They only say they were disappointed.

Is it "closure" people want? I hope not. Resolution? The pieces fitting together? High drama? Secrets revealed? Lyrical flights? Somebody help me out here. I honestly believe that many good books cannot have satisfying endings--that some of the best books just simply can't be ended. There is nothing wrong wtih this. Some stories need to be this way. David Foster Wallace wrote a lot of them--that's one of the reasons I liked him.

When you don't like the ending of a book--putting aside big, dramatic blunders--what is it exactly that you don't like?

25 comments:

Ned Resnikoff said...

I actually get really irritated when I read books where the end seems too pat and all the loose ends tie together too neatly. So for me, a satisfying ending isn't necessarily one where all of my questions are answered; usually it's the one where, after the big dramatic crescendo, things are restored to some kind of holding pattern.

By this I mean that if you think a good story is one that involves a shift out of whatever the status quo was at or before the beginning of the story, then the story is more or less over when that status quo returns or is replaced by a new status quo.

That's all pretty vague, and there are a million counterexamples out there, but as a general rule about when to put down the pen and back away from the desk, it's rarely led me astray.

k. said...

I agree. I really enjoy Ian McEwan's novels, but I hate all of his endings precisely because they do all the things that most amazon customer reviews say they want: closure, everything being answered in a way that will let you sleep at night. I think that artificial sense of comfort is what really bothers me about endings that provide too much closure -- it's a lie. Which is why the next time I read McEwan I'm going to stop at the penultimate chapter.

k. said...

I think Anonymous has a good point.

zachary-cole said...

I just finished Peter Straub's "The Throat" and, at first, the ending annoyed me. I felt that that there had been one too many red herrings leading into the final chapters, and this colored the ending for me.

However, later I realized that I'd missed the point. The main character has a revelation (I won't say what-- I'm not hear to spoil books!) that solves the book's *real* mystery. The discovery of the killer was just icing on the cake, mostly incidental to what the book was really about.

Maybe this is where many the "bad ending" complaints come from-- they've just missed the true ending of the book, one that doesn't have to be on the last page.

(Side-thought: Maybe this is why so many seem to dislike story collections--there's no clear through-line? No gift-wrapping?)

Gary said...

I disagree profoundly with Anonymous.
Putting that aside, perhaps the solution is to provide two separate endings,as Burgess did in A Clockwork Orange. Possibly each edition could have a separate ending: so the more editions a book went into the more endings it would have.

rmellis said...

Wait... who's Anonymous? I don't see anyone by that name here. Weird!

I'll tell you what I don't like: when a writer drops lots of hints that everything will come together in the end, and then it never does. It's more the hint dropping and red herrings than the lack of coming together, though.

jrlennon said...

I deleted a spam post that appeared to be in Korean. It was quite impassioned about whatever the hell it was selling though!

k. yes, McEwan, good god. His novels end with depressing anality. The maddening thing is that they don't need to--he doesn't rack up the expectations as some writers do (the ones, presumably, Rhian is referring to...)

jrlennon said...

Gary, how about a book that's all endings--each chapter an ending of a novel which happens outside the book?

Janice said...

I love that idea of a book of all endings! I think that's the secondary reason (to laziness) that I enjoy writing short stories - I can't wait to write the last sentence.

This may not make a lot of sense, but I like an ending to be like a cartoon character running off a cliff. I don't want to fall back to reality (as with an abrupt ending), nor do I want to be under the thumb of the writer any more (as with a pat ending). I want to be able to float up there momentarily in my own thoughts and in the rhythm of the words before gravity kicks in and I have to do the dishes or whatever.

Diana Holquist said...

"...His novels end with depressing anality..."

Ha! I've never read such a good description of McEwan's endings (so to speak...).

I couldn't agree more.

Pete said...

In my endings, I don't want secrets revealed - just secrets hinted at. The best books are the ones that leave me thinking and speculating long after the final page is turned. Give me informed ambiguity any day.

jrlennon said...

right on, I'm with pete!

Derek Haas said...

My favorite endings satisfy or pay-off the plot, but leave me wanting more from the characters... at least the characters who made it out alive...

jrlennon said...

That is a sequel-friendly preference there, Derek...;-)

Actually, I liked the last T. Jefferson Parker book, in which he introduced two new characters and killed one off at the end...the surviving one was the more interesting, and that one is in his new book, too.

Matt said...

Agreed w/ Pete. I would rather be left with fragments of my own imagination to solve loose threads than have everything "perfectly" resolved.

As for a book which consists entirely of endings, it sounds like something Douglas Adams (RIP) would've tackled. By contrast, Stanislaw Lem (RIP) wrote a book (Imaginary Magnitude) which consisted entirely of Forewords and Introductions (precisely because he hated Forewords and Introductions).

jrlennon said...

Imaginary Magnitude is a great book--I actually teach one of the stories in my reading-for-writers class. There are a few Lem books that are simply amazing...and I still can't believe there isn't a direct translation of Solaris into English from Polish...the only one available has French in between.

Matt said...

Re: Solaris - interesting, as I read an English translation and do not remember any French involved. (the version I read is depicted here: http://www.pitt.edu/~goscilo/Sci-Fi/BookCovers+Ills/LemSolaris1.jpg). I'm not sure who the translator was.

jrlennon said...

Yeah, that edition is translated from Polish to French, and then from French to English, I'm pretty sure. It's the only English version out there, AFAIK.

Silk Johnny said...

I read a mystery recently with a particularly good ending, Martin Amis's Night Train. The expectations we have for mysteries say a lot about endings in general, I think, because the hidden engines of all fiction are blatantly obvious in mysteries. Mysteries openly acknowledge that they hinge on action, deferral, revelation, and to some extent, resolution. Other fiction might pretend to hinge on something else, but without some adherence to elements of, well, plot, it ain't readable. Even if we love us some ambiguity in an ending, we expect some answers, too.

In Night Train, the clues are unraveled, the case is pretty much solved, but the resolution opens up another horrifying, answerless mystery and triggers a shift in the narrative voice, which we then realize has been on the brink of instability all along. So case closed, yes, but also case opened, and assloads of ambiguity. Hard to describe, really--I'd be interested to hear thoughts from others who have read it.

One reason people complain about endings is that endings often clearly lack the thought, effort, and art put into the beginnings. It is easier to start something than finish it, and beginnings are less likely to suffer because of the writer's deadlines, exhaustion, or laziness. But I'm not a writer, so I'm speculating here.

I prefer good endings. In books as in concerts, meals, movies, parties, ballgames, and everything else.

jrlennon said...

Excellent comment. Night Train is indeed a terrific book--I like it much better, in fact, than most of the Amis books I'm supposed to like...

k. said...

Here's a recent read that has an interesting ending (good, the sort of ambiguous ending that I imagine people could argue about): Novel About My Wife by Emily Perkins.

And a notroiously bad ending: Hitchcock's Psycho. The psychologist comes in and explains the mystery of Norman Bates away. Again, surely responding to the mainstream audience's desire for safe comforting closure. So sad.

I'll have to check out Night Train. I've been hesitant to read Amis after the first couple attempts because I get the impression (from Money and London Fields) that he just hates most of his characters.
But I will check this out.

By the way, I just picked up a copy of Castle from the bookstore (maybe put on the shelf a few days early?) and am now reading it at work. I'm diggin' it.

Lisa N.R. said...

How did you all find Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke? I usually don' mind the fast-forward coda as a device, if the book was truly transportive, as TOS was brilliantly so. I don't presume to say it ended badly, not at all, but I didn't feel I needed the wrap-up, the death sentence. Maybe I was just sad that it had to end, and no ending would have sufficed.

LemmusLemmus said...

I've replied here.

Matthew said...

I guess I'm with JRL in that I'm perfectly happy with any variety of types of endings so long as they fit the book. The kind of endings I don't enjoy are those that don't feel as if they were part of the same creative process of the rest of the novel or story. Some stories build toward a big conclusion--an open-ended finish can be a letdown if the rest of the book has promised resolution. But most books that I find myself enjoying in the first place are grounded in the reality of the world's broadness, and an ending that seems to wrap everything up in a pretty bow doesn't reflect the world as I experience it.

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