The End in Sight

I can see that the ending of “The Jane Austen Project” will take everything I have and then some. Everything I know about Rachel and Liam and their situation, and everything I know about Jane Austen. Everything in fact that I know about novels, and about life up to this point. But it is not primarily a matter of knowing; it comes from some deeper place than that.

And when I write a paragraph like that, and read it back over, I wonder: Am I making too much of this? Am I making it sound harder than it really is?

No.

I just read a magnificent ending. Indeed, the whole book was great. It fills me with joy to know that Jonathan Franzen is alive and among us, apparently in good health and capable of writing many more books like  Freedom. I began to fall in love with this book on Page 4, when he described his main female character, Patty, then in her early 20s and part of a newly gentrifying St. Paul neighborhood, in this way:

Tall, ponytailed, absurdly young, pushing a stroller past stripped cars and broken beer bottles and barfed-upon old snow, she might have been carrying all the hours of her days in the string bags that hung from her stroller. Behind her you could see the baby-encumbered preparations for a morning of baby-encumbered errands; ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint; and then Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel. She was already fully the thing that was starting to happen to the rest of the street.

It’s so amazing. Where do I start? The pitch-perfect detail, rich but just short of being over the top. The Silver Palate Cookbook. Public radio. Latex paint.  Zinfandel! The risk of locating a character so precisely, of course, is that readers of a future generation (and I have no doubt there will be such readers) will need footnotes. They will get it, but not entirely. But the real triumph is the move from the particular to the general to the universal. She was already fully the thing that was happening to the rest of the street. At this point, she might be just a stereotypical yuppie of a certain place and time; the point of view in this section, which is very cleverly done, seems to be a sort of Greek chorus of the neighbors, everyone and no one in particular,and to this narrator, Patty is clearly an enigma. As her mystery is revealed to the reader, slowly, over 562 pages, the stakes keep getting higher. For the characters, of course, but even more so for the writer. How to tie up a story with so many complex elements? How will he possibly resolve all this in a way that is both inevitable and surprising?

The good news is he does, magnificently. Reading this book gives me hope in endings, life, the future, and the future of the novel. And it gave me one important lesson: while it might be hard to write a good ending, it is not impossible.

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