Endless fascination: in praise of novels without neat conclusions
(By Lee Rourke)
Tidy narrative closure may be entertaining, but loose ends and ambiguity offer a truer sense of real life
I read Imogen Russell Williams's recent blogpost (Coming to bad ends: stories that refuse closure) with great interest. I do understand that she isn't proposing that novels without good and proper "endings" are in any way inferior to those that do, but something troubled me deeply about Williams's (and the vast reading public's, I would argue) desire for our narratives to reach closure.
The well-worn formula beginning/middle/end is the default mode for pretty much all of the commercial and "literary" novels that currently jostle for ascendancy on our bookshelves. We like our entertainment to make immediate sense, or if it doesn't at first, it should explain all at the end. Repeat ad infinitum. I would argue there is something crucial lacking in this formula: the power of ambiguity. Closure belittles the complexities of meaning: our meaning, our being here. So what does this desire for closure say about us as readers? Why are we so fearful of ambiguity? Why do we desire novels that, to paraphrase Alain Robbe-Grillet, do the "reading" for us?
Life isn't like the narratives that make up the majority of novels in circulation today, or like the well-rehearsed scenes we enjoy at the theatre, or in the movies. It's more complicated than that: steeped in confusion, dead ends, blank spaces and broken fragments. It's baffling at times, annoying and perpetually open-ended. We have no real way of predicting our future. So why do our novels have to tie all this stuff together, into a neatly packaged bundle of ready-made answers? Something doesn't ring true.
I read a hell of a lot of contemporary fiction, and the majority of these works, good and bad, are riddled with the same conscious/unconscious desire for the narrative to end. I can sense this peculiar event just over halfway into most novels: all those random elements that I ordinarily love suddenly begin to act rather oddly: they stop fizzing, they begin to unify, to all move in the same direction, hurtling towards the same fixed point with great force. This event is the author's doing, of course, forcing chaos towards order and natural events to act unnaturally. The author fears ambiguity, but more importantly the author fears the reader's own fears of ambiguity, and this double-edged event makes for a rather predictable read.
Here's an obvious example to support my argument. Would Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot be made richer if Godot suddenly entered stage right ("Ta-da!") at the end of the play? Of course not. Beckett's theatrical masterpiece is all the more powerful because of Godot's nonsensical absence. Does it even matter if Godot exists? Not really. The play's power stems from this ambiguity; it's this sense of instability that forces us to scrutinise things more closely. So, when I sit down with the text of Waiting for Godot and I sift through the humour, the repetition, the bleakness and acts of nothingness (you know, all that stuff that doesn't make "sense"), and I reach Vladimir's often ignored line: "Was I sleeping, while the others suffered?" the power of ambiguity suddenly hits me. Beckett is presenting to us a perpetual apocalyptic present, a catastrophe already happened/about to happen, in which something as horrific as the holocaust can occur without us noticing. Just like in real life. It's only when we hit oblique junctures such as this that we begin to realise the beginning/middle/end formula doesn't cut it. What gives us the right to such authority?
And it's not just Beckett: let's look at some of our other "great" authors, those who've possibly written works of true timelessness. Kafka, Joyce, Woolf, Gass, David Foster Wallace, Vila-Matas, Pessoa et cetera … Not the biggest fans of endings either, are they? As Viktor Shklovsky has pointed out: "A novel can come to an end, but has no ending […] because finishing [a] novel would mean knowing the future, and we don't know the future." It's the same reason why Thackeray quipped that each time he wrote a novel he wished the man who shined his shoes could write the ending for him.
It's no surprise that most novels are ruined by their forced "endings"; by our collective desire for them to conclude in an orderly fashion, so that we can get on with our lives after we have closed the book (yes, The Road, I'm looking at you). Marx that told us the novel is a bourgeois construct, its very form reflecting the demands of the bourgeoisie who gave it sovereignty. We hold up our novels like vanity mirrors, hoping to reflect our own dreams, conceits, and liberal aspirations. Duly satisfied with our novels' conclusions, we put them back down, happy and content. A week later all is forgotten, the previous novel has disappeared from our lives and we've moved on to another that's hopefully a little bit more entertaining.
But not those novels without end, steeped in ambiguity, those novels stay with us. We can't shake them off, no matter how hard we try. They haunt us, mock us, they hang around waiting for us in the shadows, they disturb our working days, disrupt our sleep, torment us, force us to participate on their own terms. Much like real life does, novels without endings reveal to us the ambiguity that is crucial to our own desire to simply find out things for ourselves. You see, no matter how enjoyable, or how much good old, traditional "common sense" is to be found in our neatly packaged "endings", I would argue there's more reality to be found in a novel as supposedly impenetrable as Finnegans Wake, famous for having no beginning or end, than myriad formulaic novels that overtly yearn to capture what it is to be us in their well-worn beginnings, middles and ends. Viva ambiguity, I say!