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The Sense of an Ending

January 20, 2012

Making Sense of an Ending

Endings are hard in life and in books. They’re rarely satisfying. After all, endings are final. Books are mortal creatures.  If I fall in love with a book, I don’t want it to ever end. If I don’t like a book, I may never reach the end. But really, does a story end just because we come to the last page? The characters may actually find themselves at a beginning. In fact, they most certainly will, unless of course the author kills them off. Even so, not all of the characters will die and the living will carry a small part of the dead person with them. The memories will affect their lives in big or small ways. The story will continue.

Where and when to start a story is one of the most difficult decisions made by an author. It’s a crapshoot and it’s totally arbitrary.  Someone comes into the protagonist’s life and they start a relationship. Should the author start with their first meeting or should they wait until the relationship is past – to begin at the end – with a look back? Should it start with the formative years because, of course, choices made by us and for us in our childhood affect the path taken. Your parents gave you piano lessons at five. At twenty you are studying at Juilliard. You meet a man who is in the audience of one of your performances. You fall in love. The first page of a book is often a deal breaker for the reader. Why? Because the author needs you to step into the lives of the characters at that special moment in time. Pick the wrong place to begin your story and, oops!, you’ve just lost your reader.

The same goes with an ending. An unsatisfying ending will infuriate a reader and turn them against you. Most readers want a big payoff at the end. A moral to the story. A reward for the protagonist. Or retribution of some sort. That’s a tall and possibly banal order. If you consult a typical writers’ guide, it will recommend tying up all the loose ends, resolving all the story lines, and lead the reader into a super-duper ending.  Some authors have an end in mind when they start but I’ve heard others say they just go where the story leads them and find out what it is when they get there. John Irving says, “I write last sentences first. I work my way backward from the end of the novel…” As a writer, I like that approach. You don’t have to suffer for months or years waiting to find out how it all shakes out. Starting at the end zone gives you a clear goal. Then the story comes forward and the ending, at least for the author, becomes simply a backdrop for what will happen to the characters.  Isn’t life all about the journey anyway?

I started thinking about all of this beginning and ending stuff after I finished reading Julian Barnes’, The Sense of an Ending, for which he won the 2011 Man Booker Prize. I was captivated right out of the gate when the thread of an old romance comes to the forefront of a fairly ordinary middle-aged man’s life. His name is Tony Webster and things happen to him, but not on a grand scale. There’s an undercurrent of uncertainty when Tony realizes that his memories may be unreliable. He wonders if what he remembers really happened the way they’d played out in his mind for decades, or whether his perception of it was colored by his reluctance to face the truth. I’ve been there. Growing up with three siblings, sometimes we find that each of us remembers the same event with completely different “accuracies.” So it is with Tony and this is the basis for this quiet story.

Still it’s mesmerizing to watch Tony, as this could easily be my life or someone I know. I could relate. However, when I got to the end, I was flummoxed. Where did that development come from? Had I missed something along the way? I felt I’d been given a plot where some of the essential clues had been left out, leaving it nearly impossible to know what was coming. Kind of like a Hercule Poirot mystery. I even reread parts of it thinking I had missed a page or forgotten a scene. As it turns out, no, I did not.  Throughout the story, Tony is continually told that he just doesn’t get it and believe me, he doesn’t get a lot of it. At one point he mentions that his epitaph should read, “Tony Webster – He Never Got It.” Well, I didn’t get it either, at first.

Geoff Dyer, reviewing it for the New York Times, described the book this way: “…any extreme expression of opinion about ‘The Sense of an Ending’ feels inappropriate. It isn’t terrible, it is just so…average. It is averagely compelling (I finished it), involves an average amount of concentration and, if such a thing makes sense, is averagely well written: excellent in its averageness!”

Well, that reader was obviously infuriated with the whole bit including the ending. (I love Geoff Dyer’s work, by the way.) It’s clear he didn’t expect or want average. A super hero perhaps? Average people make up 99% of the world. Most everyone I know is average, including me. It turns out I enjoy reading about me. Barnes must have realized that he was writing about any Tom, Dick and Harry. Wasn’t that really the point? Could he have smartened Tony up at the end so that we feel all wonderful that he’s figured out his life and found closure? Maybe, but I realized that Barnes chose to have his protagonist stay completely in character all the way through. Clueless, confused and average. Barnes might have been tempted to break character, but he chose not to. The more I thought about it, the happier I was with the story and the ending.  A bonus is what it made me do: I’ve spent hours and hours thinking about the best way to end a story. I’ve thought about this average life most of us lead, and what’s left at the end of it. Every average life is indeed unique and may I say “special” in it’s own way. Isn’t a great novel one that makes us think about ourselves in a new light? In this case, this story made me wonder what events I have mis-remembered. A more “satisfying” story and ending might have left us sated, but then could have eventually fallen into the wasteland of generic Hollywood three-part plotters.

How often in our own lives do we figure out where we are and how we got there. Is a real ending one of delineated clarity where we figure out the meaning of life? Rarely. If I understood the impacts various events have had on my life to bring me to this point in time, no doubt the Dalai Lama would be hunting me down for advice. Yes, I do have a small epiphany once in awhile, but I rarely glow with the knowledge of omnipotence.

Fuzzy ambiguous stories with non-endings are sometimes referred to as “European-inspired.” I would say that The Sense of an Ending is Europeanish then. It might not have a leading man who is a super hero or end with a big drumroll finale,  but I think anything other than what Barnes wrote would have been wrong. Yes, I heartily recommend A Sense of an Ending to anyone who understands and appreciates the subtleties, ambiguities and randomness that composes an average life. It is a beautiful thing.

Knopf, 2011

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