Australian writer, Amanda Lohrey, was interviewed on this morning’s Bookshow about her new book, a collection of short stories titled Reading Madame Bovary, which Lisa at ANZLitLovers has well reviewed. I’m not going to talk about the interview here in any detail, but I did think she had something interesting to say about endings, particularly given the last two books I’ve read whose endings were a little surprising.
Nearly all novels are feeble at the end. This is because the plot requires to be wound up. Why is this necessary? Why is there not a convention which allows a novelist to stop as soon as he feels muddled or bored? … Incidents and people that occurred at first for their own sake now have to contribute to the dénouement … most novels do fail here – there is this disastrous standstill while logic takes over the command from flesh and blood. If it was not for death and marriage I do not know how the average novelist would conclude.
Oh dear…that is certainly how novels in the past usually concluded isn’t it? Modern – Modernist and, particularly, Postmodernist (but don’t test me too closely on literary theory because I haven’t made a close study of it) – novels are more likely to have an open ending. They don’t necessarily subscribe to the notion that there must be a dénouement that ties everything up (except perhaps for genre fiction?) which creates a challenge for readers. You get to the end of an open-ended novel and are forced to ask “What was that about?”. With a traditionally ended novel, all you have to say is, well, boy met girl, boy lost girl, boy got girl again. Of course, it was usually about something else but a simple, straightforward plot can discourage further thought about the “about” question.
Amanda Lohrey expressed it this way. She said “I think that surprise is absolutely essential to satisfying fiction” but this surprise must not be too absurd, extreme or contrived. Rather it should be something that gives you a “hit of adrenaline”, that you didn’t see coming but makes you think “yes, of course, that must be how it will end”. She goes on to say that “plot isn’t everything” but there must be a journey…
So, where does all this leave us? Take my two recent reads. There was some consternation among my reading friends about the ending of Lionel Shriver’s So much for that. It was pretty much a surprise – but the question is whether it meets the second part of Lohrey’s criteria. For some it was a cop-out and diluted the novel’s intent but that, of course, depends on what you think the intent is. My other example is John Banville‘s The Infinities. It also had a surprising ending that could also be seen as a cop-out but, when I stop to think about it, particularly its somewhat playful tone, the ending did in fact make sense. (It’s telling, I think, that part of the surprise of these two potentially “copout” endings is that they are reasonably positive!)
All this said, I must say that I often forget the ending of novels I’ve read (unless they’re of the traditional marriage or death variety). What I tend not to forget though is the tone and my emotional reaction – and that is good enough for me. What about you? What do you think about endings and do you have any favourite or problematic ones?