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Thursday, December 27, 2012

On Endings and Closure

David Foster Wallace, discussing endings, states, “[T]he truth... [i]s usually a tummy thing: [D]oes this feel real?  Does this make me want to puke?  Does this seem fake or contrived or not?  And there’s not a lot of cerebration, at least for me, going on.... I didn’t want to wrap various plots up neatly within the frame of [Infinite Jest], I think, largely because a lot of commercial entertainments that I grew up with use that and it’s not entirely real.  It’s a kind of falsely satisfying way to wrap up various things that happen.”

This comes up again and again with overly intellectualized examination of texts where they want to throw out some aspect of narrative, yet this line of thinking conceals many errors in reasoning.  1) Fiction is not real.  2)  Any way you slice a life, it is artificial.  3)  Writers must arbitrarily cut a life up as listing every detail in a character’s life would be tedium and readers have to lead lives of their own.  4)  If you regard as true Socrates' axiom, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” then not examining the lives of fiction character is also not worth reading, i.e. A reader should examine the lives of characters in a text.  Therefore, a writer must write/cut/edit a life meaningfully.  He does this so that characters learn something or so that readers learn something.  The art is in how one ends a text, not whether.

Raymond Chandler is often quoted from his introduction to Trouble Is My Business:  "The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing."  This is often used to justify a lack of closure.  Chandler, on the other hand, was combating the attitude that the ending was everything, that "relative insignificance of everything except the final denouement."  All of the narrative is critical, including its conclusion.

While I initially began reading Lemony Snicket’s thirteen-book sojourn or series because of Daniel Handler's charming voice and the charm of his characters, I stayed with the series less because of the style (which was losing charm) or the plot (which quickly grew repetitive) than because of its central mystery that was implicitly promised to be revealed.  Snicket’s avoidance of actually intellectually engaging with the mystery he created turned me off.  Humans are curious.  The ending did not pay off for the work built up.  Maybe his inconclusive conclusion would be worthy of a short story, but it’s hard not to feel cheated when the ending is an emotional and intellectual cop out.  If Snicket ever writes a proper ending, I’ll read it, but I have no plans of reading Snicket’s work in the future until he repays his readers’ investment.

Ages and ages hence, writers may gather at the morgue to witness the autopsy of fiction.  They may learn that, no, it wasn't the movie with the pipe in the kitchen and not the big picture with the letter opener on the veranda.  No, it was the writer with the reinvention of the wheel on the word processor.

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