Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Sense of an Ending

Endings are hard. Yes, I realize that right now, I sound like your corny college boyfriend who broke up with you in soundbites. But does it help to know I'm not talking about love, but rather, novels?

What I mean is, it's hard to get it just right, and you're certainly not going to please everyone. Also, contrary to popular opinion, the reader isn't always right about what's right for your book; they are only right about what is right for them, as the reader, reading your ending.

Confused? Me, too. It all sounds a bit like that song by Akon. Who was noticing whom first, and as the singer, doesn't Kardinal Offishall have the advantage in this exchange??? Anyway. I'd also like to note that you don't want an angry reader to cold-cock you when your paths cross at the neighborhood laundromat. The poor bastard's just spent hours, days, weeks inside your head (yeah, yeah, the heads of your characters--whatever). Check out how pissy this guy is about endings. You don't deliver the goods? He'll never read you again! Bam. And ouch.

Still, that reaction is somewhat understandable. You want to give the reader some kind of payoff, or at least a sense of resolution. Keep in mind that I'm talking about novels, here. I think that short story writers have more latitude to end ambiguously because, well, you've probably spent about 45 minutes reading the story, not a week of your life, and probably won't go punch through a wall if Alice Munro doesn't tie up all the loose ends for you.

Here's what Anne Rice has to say about novel endings:

I love this answer for a few reasons, one of which is that she says "...as I go pounding toward that ending..." Yeah, that's right. Writers pound. But also, it's a relief to hear her say, "I've been criticized for my bad endings. For cliffhangers, for open endings, for not wrapping everything up. I think that comes from the fact that a lot of the time, I want the reader to have that feeling of life and the character going on. But I do want that resolution, that satisfied feeling that you've come to the natural end of something. Doesn't always work. It will work for me but not work for the readers."

Even Anne Rice leaves her legions of fans unsatisfied! And let's be honest: when was the last time you read a novel where the ending seemed perfect to you? Of the dozens of novels I've consumed in the past year, I remember exactly one that seemed pitch-perfect to me, and that was the ending to Aminatta Forna's THE MEMORY OF LOVE. It was bittersweet, it was sweet, it was realistic, and it satisfied my expectations, to the extent that I had any. When I read a great writer, I tend to step back and let the work wash over me; I try to accept it on its own terms because, after all, who the hell am I? I'm merely the reader, and the writer is the writer--the person who poured years of her life into the book, while I've given it a week. Who the fuck am I, the reader, in the scheme of things? Art will exist without me. People will create art on their own terms, and they do not need my permission or my approval. Isn't that what's wonderful about rocking in the free world??

Perhaps by now you sense my defensive crouch :) (Did I have you at "Who the fuck am I?" :) Well, it's more of the confused stammer I develop when people discuss the ending of my novel. Two months into my book's release, I've visited many book clubs, and the book has been reviewed in several major papers and on several blogs (but that's a whole other post), and not only do people have mixed feelings about the ending, but several of them missed the ending entirely! Some very nice, intelligent women, one major reviewer, and some minor reviewers, got it completely wrong!

Crap, I thought as wine-fueled debate raged around the dining tables and living rooms of these lovely book club ladies. *SPOILER ALERT* Some of them think Rosalie stays with Abdullah! That she accepts being his second fiddle! That she subjugates herself to the unacceptable lifestyle he's arranged for them!  

The first time this happened, I actually had a mild stroke that left me passed out on my very comfortable easy chair and drooling out of the left side of my mouth. OK, not really. But I was horrified. In my attempt to write an ending filled with poetry, did I forget to mention that she leaves the bastard? Did the ending get muddled in ambiguous language? Dammit, Parssinen, you put in five years and then you effing blew the ending.

Then I opened the book and re-read the last two pages:

"With both hands, she smoothes the map she has placed on the dresser top. She found it in a desk drawer, the socialist's map from the bar all those years ago. He cannot know how well he paid her that night, when he gifted her with the entire world. She runs her fingers over the boot of Saudi Arabia, feels the crinkle of the paper. She remembers the ache of homelessness she felt when they flew out of the desert, she, Maxine, and Wayne. Sometimes, the cure for nostalgia is return. She knows she will leave.

She puts her finger on Texas, moving it from west to east until she arrives at Sugar Land. For her, it is a heavy place, the blinds always drawn, her mother cranky without her supply of Yemeni khat, the swampy Gulf air rich with decay. She has never been nostalgic for Sugar Land and she will not start now. A new place is what she is after. She feels the Urals rise up under her open palm, the unfurling of the South China Sea at her fingertips. She knows there is an island where she can catch slick, muscled fish that glitter more brightly than all the jewels of Gold City. She knows there is a place where she can sit too long in the sun and shed the layer of skin that clings to her now. She will find that place, lose herself, lose memory. The children will visit her there, in this place beyond language, beyond nation; they will laugh and laugh and laugh, a sound like bells echoing into the sky."

Whew. There it is! Relieved to realize I didn't forget to mention that she'll be LEAVING (see line "She knows she will leave") her entitled and cowardly husband and heading for parts new and unknown. Oh, and while I'm snarkity snarking: the title is, after all, THE RUINS OF US. Bitch leaves! They're dunzo!

Last night, I expressed to Husband my frustration about my somewhat frequent brush with readerly misunderstanding of the ending, and he said, genially, which did not prevent me from wanting to stab him in the knee with a pencil, "Well, if it's happened more than once, maybe it is a problem worth examining?"

Traitor! This from the man who told me that I shouldn't wrap things up too neatly, and that I wanted people to be able to read into it a bit.

Double sigh.

But also--dare I say it--I think a problem is that, in our eagerness for the payoff, we read endings too quickly. Perhaps we get impatient, or perhaps the book's momentum is so great that we can't slam on the brakes to give heed to language? Language that, presumably, the author chose very carefully? I have a bad habit of changing my book status on Goodreads from "Currently reading" to "Read" even before I've finished the last chapter; I know as a reader, I get sloppy toward the end of novels.

Really, when it comes to endings, can a writer ever win? Even when an ending is well done and I've loved a book, I still tend to be a tad bitter, simply because I'm being shut out of a world I've come to enjoy. I guess what I'm asking is, readers, can we please meet in the middle? I'll give you your payoff, but you have to promise to actually read it :)  


  1. This doltish reader often doesn't remember the endings of novels, let alone read them carefully or correctly, but the image that has lingered in my mind from the end of your novel is of Rosalie on the porch of a squat, rustic, lovely beach bungalow, watching Faisal and Maryam walk up the path to her house. She's tan and wearing cut-offs (a Texan in paradise, and I just love them) and has achieved a state of serenity--not nirvana, certainly, but she's grateful, not bitter, for the complex journey of her life and the wisdom it's given her. A lovely, bittersweet ending that gave this reader a lot to ponder. I'll be looking for her if I ever get to a tropical island ...

  2. A wise person (it may have even been you) once said that when you put your writing "out there," it's kind of like selling your house: The person who buys it can do with it as they like - because now it belongs to them. It's a completely frustrating lack of control (especially when they paint your entryway yellow! Or think Rosalie would stay!), but also kind of cool. After all, what is art if not an exchange between the artist and the world. There is an alchemy there - unpredictable and impossible to control - but also kind of exciting, right? Otherwise, we would all just keep our novels in our desk drawers where they could stay safe, and pristine, and perfectly understood.
    PS: It WAS you who said this in QHWW. See how well I listen? :)

  3. Leah, I love that you imagine meeting Rosalie one day. You guys would totally hit it off, especially while sipping Mai Tais in some great locale :)

    Jill: Haha! I would say "You got me!" except that, in this case, I think it was less the magical alchemy that occurs when art and the world collide, and instead more a result of inattention to language--which I am far more ready to forgive in readers, being an admittedly inattentive reader toward the end of books myself, than in reviewers--that's just plain sloppy work! But I'm also coming from an English major's background (and am married to an English PhD, ABD), so language and its careful study is something I've always appreciated :)

  4. But yes, you're right, part of the agreement the writer tacitly makes with the world upon the publication of her book is to relinquish all control. Sometimes that can be a blast--as when I FaceTimed with an amazing Marin book club last night and saw how energized they were in discussing the characters. And sometimes, it's just soul destroying and makes me never want to publish anything again. True story.

  5. I love this. Before I get into the main reason for my response, can I just say I completely burst out laughing when I read this: Last night, I expressed to Husband my frustration about my somewhat frequent brush with readerly misunderstanding of the ending, and he said, genially, which did not prevent me from wanting to stab him in the knee with a pencil, "Well, if it's happened more than once, maybe it is a problem worth examining?"

    I do agree that endings are hard. Sometimes I think that the difficulty we readers have with endings is directly because the writer has created a world that we become so incredibly invested in. I start to care so damn much about the characters in books that I love that my imagination starts to create the journey that I want for them, and I have to remind myself that I'm experiencing/enjoying/learning from the journey someone else has created for them.

    When I finished "The Ruins of Us" I did end up re-reading the last few pages several times. And I think it's because I was struggling with what I wanted to happen (I admit to also re-reading because of the haunting poetry of the ending). I wanted Rosalie to leave throughout the novel, yet as your novel closed, I was surprised to realize that part of me didn't want that. Part of me wanted her to re-find her old idea of happiness, the nostalgia of the beautiful parts of her previous relationship with Abdullah. It's complicated, and painful, and real, which can be difficult for some (most?) people to deal with.

  6. Keija,

    This cracked me up because we had the same discussion before you arrived at book club Tuesday night! I think it's a combination of rushing through the ending AND hearing what you want to hear--which we know most people are guilty of :)

    Anyway, thanks again for coming and speaking to our group. It was great to meet you, and I definitely feel enriched as a result of reading your book. Looking forward to the next one!

    Jocelyn Seagrave

  7. Jocelyn, it was great to meet you last week! Thanks for visiting the blog, and for the comment :) Sometimes I take informal polls at the book clubs I visit, and people always have differing thoughts about what happens at the end! I like that, and I hope that it leads to good discussion. Hope our paths cross again in the future, and good luck with your writing!