Thursday, March 17, 2011

Gimme some happy

On HTMLgiant the other day, Blake Butler asked, "What are some good books that have happy endings and don’t suck shit?"  Hey, yeah--good question.  Commenters gave him plenty of answers: Jesus' Son, The Fermata, Ulysses (sort of), Stuart Little.  Well--that last is a kids' book, so of course it has a happy ending.  But it doesn't suck.  Neither, for that matter, does the ending of Little House In The Big Woods.  In fact, this latter is the only book ending that I start crying just thinking about: it might be the most beautiful ending of any book I've ever read.

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa's fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods.  She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the fire-light gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle.  She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.
     She thought to herself, "This is now."
     She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light, were now.  They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now.  It can never be a long time ago.

A while back a relative told me that eventually everybody turns into a Republican--the older you get, the harder you get, the less you want to give away.  Nope.  I am getting softer by the day.  And I like happy endings more and more.  If you can write one, you are a badass.  They are hard.  Our assumption, I think, is that happiness is empty.  Misery is real, happiness is an illusion.  Life will end in pain and fear, after all--why should our novels be any different?

Fuck that.  Gimme some happy.  Surprise me with it.  Find a way to tell me that love matters, and everything that is temporary is beautiful.  Show me that now is now and it can never be a long time ago.  I dare you.

15 comments:

violentbore said...

I absolutely agree that those who can successfully pull off a happy ending are badass.

Happiness seems to have lost itself in the ironic or oblivious or absurd (or some combination of the three). I cannot think of one novel or film I enjoy that employs happiness in a sincere light.

Maybe it's an issue of polarity. I can stick with a story (in any medium) that errs on the dismal side, but I find those that lean strongly towards sentimentality are un -readable/-watchable.

Interesting topic.

violentbore said...

polarity? hmm.

moving on...

Mac said...

Absolutely. From a painting prospective - those who can capture happy expressions in a painting are also badass.

John said...

The final chapter of _Anna Karenina_ (the very last sentence). Also, the final paragraphs of _Howards End_:

Margaret was silent. Something shook her life in its inmost recesses, and she shivered.

"I didn't do wrong, did I?" he asked, bending down.

"You didn't, darling. Nothing has been done wrong."

From the garden came laughter. "Here they are at last!" exclaimed Henry, disengaging himself with a smile. Helen rushed into the gloom, holding Tom by one hand and carrying her baby on the other. There were shouts of infectious joy.

"The field's cut!" Helen cried excitedly--"the big meadow! We've seen to the very end, and it'll be such a crop of hay as never!"

Franz Neumann said...

http://storiesandnovels.com/facts-about-blakey

bigscarygiraffe said...

I wept like whoa when Laura got married.

jrlennon said...

Yeah, you're like, "But she's just a LITTLE GIRL!"

I suddenly remembered Laurie Colwin's novel Happy All The Time, which I remember liking--it's about happy people, period. But I don't recall how it ends.

5 Red Pandas said...

What I want to know is this- can a novel be funny without some bad business happening to the main character? (Probably, but it's early and I can't think of any.)

Ginger said...

A few reasons, just off the top of my head, why serious fiction might tend toward unhappy, or at least complicated endings:

1. I think maybe it's harder (even as readers) to experience/empathize with other people's happiness when we're in pain than vice versa.

2. Our own happiness, when it occurs, requires perhaps less literary affirmation. That is, it doesn't evoke the same desire to question, probe, and seek solace in reading or writing as the various pains we're eager to fix.

3. Real joy springs from our connections with others, whereas pain and sadness are isolating. If what we're seeking when we read and write is an escape from solipsism, opening up the places where our most profound isolation occurs may counter our loneliness better than the already communal ground of happiness.

So yeah, a happy conclusion that doesn't alienate the reader seems exceedingly difficult to pull off. And definitely worthy of respect.

Ginger said...

As an aside: it's this work of trying to confront and transform what feels wrong about ourselves and/or our lives that seems to be a major difference between literature and entertainment.

george said...

Funny enough, but I just began re-reading *Stuart Little* and *Charlotte's Web* for a course I'm teaching in the fall. I was struck how these books were "allowed" happy endings in ways that adult novels are not.

Sasha said...

It's funny literature is so downbeat, because Hwood is ALL about the happy endings.

You can't even have a sociopathic monster anymore without a redemption arc. See: the wussification of the supernatural.

So even though I confess to bawling over that Anna Karenina quote, overall, I'm actually wishing for a few more bitter takeaways.

Shauna said...

JRL - Love this post. How about - maybe the first happy ending in a gay novel - Patricia Highsmith (writing under the pen name Claire Morgan) "The Price of Salt." She got fan mail for years and years thanking her for the happy ending....It was written in the fifties.

Russell said...

Franny and Zooey (considered as a book) has a happy ending. Remember the Fat Lady? Professor Tupper? Christ? "For some minutes, before she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, [Franny] just lay quiet, smiling at the ceiling."

Andrew Gelman said...

Hey--my longer comment got eaten by the blog. So I'll try to keep it short this time . . .

Why do you describe "happy ending" and "Republican" as opposites? I think the usual assumption is that Republicans like Mom, apple pie, Norman Rockwell, and happy endings, while Democrats enjoy non-representational art, transgression, unhappy endings, and edginess in general.

Also, I'm surprised you describe Stuart Little as having a happy ending. I remember, as a kid, being upset by Stuart Little's indeterminate ending. I think it was the first book I read that didn't have an unequivocally happy ending.