Sunday, May 19, 2013

Thinking of Strout's Burgess Boys and Endings...

It is the time of the school year when endings are on my mind -- not only because the academic year is drawing to a close but also because in each of the classes I teach, we are reaching (have reached) the end of the novels and stories we are reading.  All this means that I have been talking and thinking a lot about conclusions.

Wherever (and whoever and whatever) I've taught, the vast majority of readers want a happy ending.  A common complaint I hear is that too many novels have depressing endings.  I understand why people want a happy ending, but I also understand why writers don't want to give one.  My Vermont College of Fine Arts classmate and superb writer Heather Sharfeddin gave her graduating lecture on the need for "unhappy" endings (I'm sure she called it something better than that!) and I don't want to steal her ideas.  But I do agree with the main point she made: life doesn't always provide (or even often provide) a happy ending, so why should literature?

This spring, however, I've taught several tragedies (Medea, Othello, A Streetcar Named Desire) and have been reflecting on what makes an ending good and effective.  Happiness is not it.  Resolution is the key.  And this is where I've been thinking of my own writing and wondering how to articulate this craft point.

Resolution is tricky because, of course, the story goes on.  Like the weakness of a happy ending, too much conclusion is unrealistic: we don't always (or often) feel certainty that things will work out or happen a certain way.  Endings should wrestle with and reflect that uncertainty.  Yet, they should offer some sense of resolution.  They should suggest - this is done; you, reader, can move on.  Moving on might mean that you keep thinking about the characters and wondering what might happen... (but that's one of the things I love about reading).

Having recently finished Elizabeth Strout's new novel Burgess Boys, and having this topic on my mind as I did so, I paid close attention to the ending.  I have to say, it does an excellent job resolving the themes and plot of the novel without overdoing it.  Strout doesn't attempt to tie everything up in a pretty package, bow neatly placed on top.  But she does give the readers a sense of closure -- some of it is sad, some of it is uncertain (this might happen next, or that) -- but for each character, theme, or line of plot, the reader gets a moment to revisit, recalibrate, and to feel.

That feeling moment is what I like about (and try to learn from) tragedy.  The creation of sympathy, the rise of the catharsis... and then that pause (I think of it is as the instant between when a musician ends a song and the applause begins) where the reader feels.  A solitary moment that the author allows.  That's resolution.

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