December 16, 2011

The Ending that Shakes the Foundation

Spoiler Alert: I’m talking about surprise endings in literary fiction here, so if you don’t want it spoiled, don’t read!

I love Best American Short Stories. I read it every year, along with PEN/O’Henry. I’m taking my time, savoring it. There are always a bunch of the stories I’ve already read in their original pub ~ but I always reread them ~ and then there’s the delicious new ones.

Last night, I read Rebecca Makkai’s “Peter Torelli, Falling Apart.” I began reading it, thinking, this is interesting, not riveting but interesting. It’s the story of two guys who have been friends since childhood who are also both gay. The narrator, Drew, though he doesn’t say it, is in love with the other one, Peter, a charismatic actor. They kissed just once when they were teenagers. But now Peter’s falling apart and his acting career is in crash and burn. Because Drew is his friend, he gets Peter a job at a fundraising function reading a story that Drew doesn’t much like but thinks it suits him. Predictably, Peter flubs it, but so much less predictable is the end. Rebecca does this astounding authorial feat that upends the story and shoots you way out and above and resets the whole thing. I won’t do it justice, but I’ll try. Peter storms out and Drew knows that he will never see him again, but Rebecca frames it using the language of the story that a few pages before Drew had dismissed basically as rubbish (the one that Peter began reading outloud). This electrifies the story, it turns it over, it makes it so sad and moving. I can’t really explain it well.

I get chills just thinking about it. I love it when authors do this. If they always did this, it would get old, certainly. (Like a lot of people say the epiphanic ending is over. But it’s not over ~ writers just have to be careful how they use it. It must be made new, like everything else.) But it is so amazing, when it happens. I can think of a number of old examples: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and the movie Jacob’s Ladder, to name two. More recently, two novels that have blown my socks off are Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall and Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. Again, chills thinking about them. These are all executing a raven. The whole of By Nightfall is about the narrator’s attraction to his wife’s brother, but then in the end it’s about the wife, in such a sad and moving way. I reread and reread it to reposition the rest of the book. In The Sense of Ending, you are blown away by the realization that puts the narrator’s whole relationship with a past love in a new light. Amazing. And the amazing Julian does it again.

I think the risk of such an ending is that it comes off as fake or tacked on. I LOVED Louise Erdrich’s Shadow Tag, but I felt that the end was unearned and tacked on. She shouldn’t have chosen her husband over her children. But in another way it is totally earned and it’s rather my own biases coming in. That’s one of the risks of such an ending.

I’m just standing in awe of these writers’ art.


Dave Gray said...

Have no ending, and you're "literary." Have a contrived ending and you're "Hollywood." A good surprise ending is one of the hardest things to pull off

Tamara said...

A great point, Dave! I hadn't thought of it that way.

That and comedy. So hard to pull off!

JoAnn said...

hey Tamara, I am not going to read this yet. Thanks for reminding me to get this collection! And you bog.

Tamara said...

Oh, gosh. It's like my mecca. :-) Happy reading!

Michael Selmer said...

Seeing excellence in our craft helps us strive to be better. Thanks for revealing it your posts.

Tamara said...

It does! You have to fight the feeling of "Wow, how can I ever be that good" and use it as impetus to strive harder, do better.

Thank you, Michael, for stopping by!