The New Yorker tells us why novels have bad endings (plus, the best ending ever!)

The last time we checked in on The New Yorker, someone was pontificating on why genre fiction by definition can’t be high art. Now someone else tells us why novels tend to have bad endings.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way and state that this basic premise is idiotic.  Some novels have great endings; some novels have lousy endings.  There is nothing inherent in the art form that makes it hard for Mark Twain, for example, to come up with a good ending for Huckleberry Finn (one of the article’s prime examples). Her basic explanation for this purported phenomenon has something to do with entropy and makes absolutely no sense to me.  But instead of analyzing it, let me offer my own theory of why some endings are better than others.

Writers don’t start with entire plots; they start with ideas or images from which the plot emerges (usually with a lot of hard work).  Sometimes the image has to do with the ending; sometimes it doesn’t.  And the image tends to be what’s most vital, most deeply imagined, about the novel.  I don’t know anything about the genesis of Huckleberry Finn, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it started with Twain imagining a white boy and a black man floating down the Mississippi on a raft.  This is worth a novel!  But then you have to get them onto the raft, and you have to explain what happens to them afterwards, and none of that other stuff is quite as interesting.  The image is the art; everything else is craft.

OK, enough of that.  Thinking about endings made me want to re-read the best ending ever, which is the final few paragraphs of James Joyce’s The Dead.  I can imagine Joyce constructing a story just to lead up to this moment, with Gabriel staring out the window at the snow, thinking of his wife’s lost lover.  It’s an ending that makes your soul swoon softly, as it should in the presence of great art.

The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

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In which I read a New Yorker blog post about genre fiction so you don’t have to

Well, if you really want to read it, here you go.  But let me just give you my quick summary: Anything the author thinks is really good isn’t genre fiction; so, obviously, if it’s genre fiction, it can’t be all that good.  Like so:

“All the Pretty Horses” is no more a western than “1984” is science fiction. Nor can we in good conscience call John Le Carré’s “The Honorable Schoolboy” or Richard Price’s “Lush Life” genre novels.

I love the imperial “we” in that second sentence.  And the “in good conscience”: I could call The Honorable Schoolboy a spy novel, because it involves, like, spies and all, but no, I just can’t bring myself to do it.  My mother brought me up to be better than that.

I thought this debate had been resolved back in the 1960s, with Vonnegut and Burgess and Tolkien and, yes, Le Carré. But apparently some people still want to fuss about it.  Sheesh.  What a waste of time.

Help! I need a title!

And it can’t be Revenge of the Fluffy Bunnies, because that’s already taken, dammit.

For those of you just tuning in: I’ve got a sequel to my post-nuclear-war private eye novel Dover Beach; it is tentatively titled Locksley Hall.  I’m not convinced that the title Dover Beach ever did me any favors, and I’m even less convinced that Locksley Hall will be any better.  This post explains.

The hero of both novels, Walter Sands, is a bookish guy, so it makes sense that he would come up with a bookish title.  Locksley Hall, a poem by Alfred Tennyson, surely qualifies as bookish.  But I’m pretty convinced that no one is going to want to read a book with that title, unless maybe it’s a Regency romance.  On the other hand, I don’t want to give the novel a boring, self-explanatory title, like Walter Sands’s Second Case.

Locksley Hall is a weird poem in which the narrator is trying to come to grips with being dumped by his beloved.  He ends up getting past his personal unhappiness and giving a typical Victorian paean to the future and its wondrous possibilities.  Here is a couplet from near the end of the poem:

Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.

I have made this the epigraph of the novel. You will notice that, in the context of a novel that takes place after a limited nuclear war that has made a mess of everything and everyone, the Victorian optimism of the couplet is absurdly ironic. On the other hand, as we see by the end of the novel, it is not completely ironic; after many setbacks and a lot of self-doubt, the hero has solved his second case and is finally starting to feel good about his personal future, even if the world he inhabits is still a mess.

So how does the title The Distance Beacons strike you?  The first thing that you might notice about the title is that the grammar is misleading.  The tendency is to think of “beacons” as a plural noun–so what the heck are “distance beacons”?  Is that confusion bad?  Sometimes a title that grates on you a little is a good thing.  Think of The Sun Also Rises, which is a quote from the Bible that really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense until you really ponder the novel.  What is that “also” doing there?  (OK, OK, I’m no Hemingway.)

I’d love to know what you think.

Here, by the way, is the scene where Walter discusses titles with his friend Art, proprietor of Art’s Filthy Bookstore.  Walter is taking refuge there after being shot and chased by Federal soldiers.  “TSAR” is a shadowy group that calls itself “The Second American Revolution”.

**********

My friend Art is a pleasant-looking little old man with a long white beard. He is also a smut-peddler, but everyone’s got to eat. His store is filled with books and magazines that let people fantasize about a world they can never experience. He has his own fantasies, but they aren’t sexual: he dreams of literary soirées, of long philosophical discussions over a glass of sherry in faculty lounges, of a world where people can contemplate great ideas and meditate on the mysteries of life instead of brooding about the past (like Henry) or struggling just to stay alive. He feels that I am a kindred spirit, and I think he may be right.

“Walter!” he cried out when I staggered inside. “What happened to you?”

“Long story,” I mumbled. The prospect of finally getting some relief made me realize how exhausted I was.

He led me through the bookstore and into the back room where he lived. I lay down on his cot and closed my eyes while he bustled about, trying to find something he could use to bandage my arm. “I should tell you that you might get into trouble if the Feds find out I’m here,” I said. “They aren’t happy with me at the moment.”

I’m sure this didn’t please Art, but he was brave about it. “Then we’ll just have to keep the Feds from finding out,” he replied. He sat down next to the cot and began tending my wounds. “Now tell me everything,” he said.

I summarized for him the case so far. He shook his head in wonder as I described what I’d been through. “Why don’t you write about these things instead of living them?” he asked.

That had been Henry’s advice, too. “Maybe I will, if I ever get the chance. But right now I’ve got to figure out how to find Gwen before sunrise, or else TSAR says they’re gonna kill her.”

This was the kind of reality that made Art uncomfortable. It didn’t make me feel very good either. “But what can you do, Walter?” he asked. “How can you find her?”

I tried to think. I had no more theories. The only thing I could do was to find out what Gwen’s theory had been. How had she managed to find TSAR when no one else could? But to find out Gwen’s theory I had to somehow get to the Globe. “Have you got a bicycle, Art?”

“Well, yes, but—”

I struggled dizzily to my feet. “I’ve gotta go to Dorchester and talk to Gwen’s editor.”

“Don’t be a fool, Walter. You’ve got to rest. You won’t help Gwen if you collapse on the way—or if the Feds capture you again.”

I supposed he was right. “But I can’t just stay here,” I said.

“Look,” Art said. “Why don’t I send someone over to Bobby Gallagher’s place? Mickey can come pick you up and drive you to Dorchester.”

Bobby and Mickey once again. I decided to buy my own car once this was over and learn how to drive. Couldn’t I accomplish anything without help? “I dunno,” I said. I took a step; it wasn’t a very steady one. I sighed. “All right.”

“Good. Now rest.”

I sank back onto the cot and rested.

* * *

Art got a teenaged boy who lived next door to make the trip to South Boston for us. His payment was an ancient copy of Playboy, which sounded like a pretty good deal to me. While he was gone, Art cooked me some food and tried to keep my spirits up. “Have you thought about a title for your case yet?” he asked.

A title. When I had started on the case, I hadn’t thought it deserved one. Now, well—a title couldn’t hurt. But I sure was in no mood to come up with one. “Any suggestions?” I asked.

Art brought some scrambled eggs over to me, and I wolfed them down. He sat on a wooden chair next to the cot and considered. This was the sort of thing he enjoyed. “Your case really starts with the president and her dream, right?” he said after a while. “She thinks the referendum is the start of a great new age for America and the world.”

“I suppose so.”

“Then how about Locksley Hall for a title?” He smiled and quoted from the poem. “‘For I dipped into the future, far as human eye could see,/Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be.'”

“That’s some serious irony,” I said. I quoted from another part of the poem. “‘Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rained a ghastly dew,/From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue.'”

“Irony is good in titles,” Art pointed out, and he topped my quote. “‘Till the war drum throbbed no longer, and the battle flags were furled,/In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.”‘

The Parliament of man, the Federation of the world. The president was having some difficulty with her vision of the world. All we had gotten so far was the ghastly dew.

“It’s a bit obscure, don’t you think?  We’re probably the only two people in Boston who know that poem.”

“Why should that matter, Walter?  It’s not like anyone is going to read the book.”

“That’s a very good point.”

I finished my eggs, and we waited for Mickey.

 

Philip Roth writes a letter to Wikipedia, and we should all read it

This is pretty funny, and a little sad.  Philip Roth came across an inaccuracy in the Wikipedia article about his novel The Human Stain.  The article stated that the novel was “allegedly based on the life of the writer Anatole Broyard.”  But it wasn’t.  Roth informed Wikipedia of the error, but the Wikipedia refused to make a change:

Yet when, through an official interlocutor, I recently petitioned Wikipedia to delete this misstatement, along with two others, my interlocutor was told by the “English Wikipedia Administrator”—in a letter dated August 25th and addressed to my interlocutor—that I, Roth, was not a credible source: “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work,” writes the Wikipedia Administrator—“but we require secondary sources.”

So he wrote an open letter to The New Yorker instead, giving the background of the novel, which is about a college professor who gets caught up in a political correctness scandal.

Anatole Broyard was a literary critic who never acknowledged that he was of African-American ancestry.  The main character of The Human Stain is a professor who never acknowledged his African-American ancestry.  So that’s where reviewers made the connection.  But Roth goes to great lengths to make the case that this connection isn’t correct. “Novel writing is for the novelist a game of let’s pretend,” he says.  He took a germ of an idea–a muddle-headed remark made in class by a friend of his at Princeton, and its consequences–and populated a novel from it.

The Human Stain is great, but I particularly admire the shorter novels he been writing lately.  The Humbling was too over-the-top with the standard Roth sexual fantasies for my taste (and that of most critics, I think).  But Nemesis, about an imagined polio outbreak in Newark in 1944, was powerful and moving.

But back to Wikipedia.  Its article about The Human Stain is now up to date, citing Roth’s explanation of the novel’s genesis.  They don’t waste any time!  And now I may be inspired to tackle an error in my brief and uninteresting Wikipedia writeup: it says Marlborough Street was published in 1975, but it was actually published in 1987; I still hadn’t learned how to write in 1975.  They’ve got secondary sources that also list the book as being published in 1975, so apparently they’re not going to take my word for it.  I have no idea where that date came from.  I wonder if they’ll accept this blog post as a source?  I suppose I could post a photo of the copyright page . . .