Wednesday, December 04, 2013

An Unhappy Ending

It seems to be generally accepted that as you get older - assuming you avoid botox and facelifts - you get the face you deserve. The scribbled map of wrinkles, crows’ feet, frown lines and smile lines you finish up with, is determined by what kind of face you’ve chosen to present to the world over the preceding years. The same is true of a story – the ending is determined by what went before, the narrative grows organically to produce an appropriate, fitting conclusion. So with an Unhappy Ending in fiction – a death, a loss, a closing down of promising paths into the future – you see where it comes from, and thus you tend to have a feeling of acceptance along with your sadness. This is even true of surprise endings. Yeats talked about the surprising word that seems inevitable, and it’s the same with a surprise ending – you may not have expected it, but once it comes along you realise there is no other way the story could have come to an end.

But that’s fiction. Life’s not like that, it’s more ragged and various and unresolved. We talk about moving on after an Ending, we claim it’s an opportunity, we say As one door closes another opens. All of which suggests we’re turning our backs on the Ending, hurrying away from it as if it’s unwelcome, unlucky, toxic. That’s because an Ending, an Unhappy Ending anyway, leaves you disoriented – Did that just happen? How did that happen? An Unhappy Ending in life has none of that reassuring sense of inevitability you find in fiction. It leaves you sad, it taints everything that went before it, making the whole long journey look as if it was merely a path towards this bad conclusion. And then anger arrives, like bad weather, and you can appear to be suffering from Tourette’s, spitting swear words at perceived or actual injustice.

In fiction, an Unhappy Ending may be the perfect way to finish a novel. In life, an Unhappy Ending is a wound. But wounds heal. And wounds, eventually, are where some of the best stories come from.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

May We Be Forgiven

I nearly gave up. Over privileged Americans casually destroying people’s lives. No one seemed to have any genuine feelings for anyone. The characters felt sketchy, and they floated around in an affectless, druggy trance. Why should I care about any of them? Why should I be interested in their lives? Well, I think that question occurred to A.M Homes too. The first part of the novel was published as a short story, and in deciding to continue it, to extrapolate, to follow these people’s lives, she chose to address those two questions. How do you make your main character sympathetic? Have him be kind to children, old people and animals, give him issues with his physical and mental health. How do you make him interesting? Make him have a great deal of sex. I'm sure it wasn't quite that mechanical, but that's what happens - and it works. As the novel develops, it becomes all about absolution,  and the main character sort of inflates from the two dimensional bore of the beginning into a human being with depth, who stops floating and makes decisions, some of them flawed but most of them interesting. You read on, wanting to find out what he’ll do next, what will happen to him next, where he’s going to end up. Story is important, but what’s more important is who is making that story happen, who it's happening to. Character. It’s all about character.

One note. My copy is plastered with reviews which call the book ‘Extremely funny’, ‘Horribly funny’, ‘Brilliantly funny’. These people must be very easily pleased. It raises the odd smile, and has a nice, surprising quirkiness, but ‘Hilarious’? No.