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.

In Which the Narrative Fights Back

It is nearly two months since I wrote the previous post. Where did the time go? Well, where does it ever go? Is that not the whole problem with life?

I suppose  that I should be excited. In the weeks since my last post I have had an experience I have often read about happening to other novelists and would-be novelists but never quite believed possible, when the characters revolted and refused to behave as they were told, instead rendering the narrative lifeless, stranding me in repeated blind alleys, until I relented and gave them what they wanted.

There was a character I meant to kill. I have intended all along, since I was first planning this novel in early 2008, to kill this character at the end of the book. The death had an important narrative function, or so I thought. It was supposed to be all about what we sacrifice for love and art. The death was supposed to make everything that happened after that, the tidy resolution of the various plot points, possible.

Except it didn’t work that way. Killing the character suddenly created a number of serious, seemingly unfixable problems. Worse, it suddenly halted the forward momentum of my narrative. As in real life, when someone important dies, everything stops, everything changes, and you are left gasping and paralyzed. How did I fail to realize that would happen?

I myself was devastated by the death of my character. It wasn’t supposed to work like this. They are, after all, fictional. How can I entertain such tender feelings for them? It seems the height of self-indulgence.

And I have to wonder, did Jane Austen have such problems?

Did she ever struggle, for example, over the question of whether Henry Crawford should come to his senses and not elope with Maria but persist in his love for Fanny? Actually, that is not a very good example. Did she ever think about having Willoboughy repent at the last minute and leave Sophy at the altar to reunite with his beloved Marianne, and marrying Elinor off to Colonel Brandon instead?

I have to think that she did not. And that is the difference between Jane Austen and me. She knew what she was doing. She never let the seams show. If she lived today and had a blog, it would probably be about needlework and fashion, but never about the struggles with her art.

On the other hand, thanks to the canceled Chapter 10, we do know that while she never doubted that Anne would end up with Captain Wentworth, there was some confusion in her mind about exactly how to make this happy event take place in a way that was dramatic and yet natural.

So maybe Jane Austen wasn’t perfect. I take only the most moderate comfort in this reflection, however.

I am still waiting for the other fabled thing that supposedly happens to novelists, when the characters rise up and push me to the finish line, when the force of the narrative propels me to the end, breathless but effortless. Yeah. I am waiting for that.

Elizabeth Jenkins Is Amazing

The obit pages are an important source of leads for great yet undeservedly obscure books. That was where I learned of The Tortoise and the Hare by the recently deceased Elizabeth Jenkins, whom I already knew of as the author of a wonderful, though hard to find,  biography of  Jane Austen. I finished reading The Tortoise and the Hare last night, rather too late, and am still under its spell.  Such a book should not be forgotten, yet it largely is.

What made it at once so much fun to read and so satisfying as a work of art? The sly humor, the use of telling detail, and the aptness of the social observation,  though it describes a world that is both unfamiliar to me and long vanished (English, upper-middle class, late 1940s or early 50s) The subtle way the story is told.  The ending. Especially, the ending. It is a truly magnificent ending, which surprised me, for all along, though I was enjoying the journey the book was taking me on, I kept feeling the structure — the plot — was odd. Unusual. Where was she going with this?

The novel tells the story of about a year in the life of Imogen, a sensitive and attractive woman of 37, married to Evelyn, a successful lawyer 15 years older, and her gradually dawning horror and despair as she realizes she is losing her husband to an unlikely rival: a never-married, badly dressed, unattractive neighbor, Blanche, age 50. Blanche is decisive, generous, practical and rich. Unlike Imogen, she enjoys fishing, hunting and outings to the race track. She is everything Imogen is not, and Imogen’s self-confidence, never strong to start with, slowly wilts as she moves from vague discontent to suspicion, then to fear, then to certainty that Blanche has become her husband’s mistress. The couple’s one child, Gavin, is a copy of his father, and his contemptuous treatment of Imogen is a humorous foil for the more subtle cruelty meted out by Evelyn. Only Gavin’s friend, Tim Leeper, who becomes a fixture in the household as a refuge from his own chaotic home (the scenes at the Leepers’ are among the broadest and most amusing in the book), seems to have any admiration for Imogen and her quiet virtues.

The book’s narrative structure is odd, because nearly the entire novel is taken up with the gradual crushing of Imogen. She is passive, inert, completely under the spell of her charismatic and adored husband even as she realizes she is losing him. A woman from another era, she has defined herself completely in the role of wife and mother, only to find she has failed at both. Her despair is nearly total, yet the flashes of wit and beauty keep the story from becoming too depressing. And yet as I kept reading, I kept asking myself, what is she going to DO? And when is she going to do it? The structure of a novel demands conflict and resolution — a character resisting, in some fashion, the mess she has been presented with. And yet Imogen seems powerless to do anything. Until, finally, she does.

To describe the ending would not be to spoil it — there is no shocking development, nothing that does not grow organically out of character and situation — yet it would also not do it justice. All along, the author has skillfully kept the reader just a few steps ahead of Imogen, so we see what she does not yet, the utter ruin of her marriage. And this technique succeeds brilliantly in the end, for we are taken exactly to the point — and no farther — where we realize that Imogen is going to be all right, even though she does not yet fully understand that.  That she has, in fact, escaped a kind of living death, the illusion of happiness with a selfish, cruel husband, and whatever her life is going to be going forward is going to be hers, founded in reality. But the author does not explain any of this as baldly as I have just done; she does not need to. The story tells us everything we need, and no more.

On Beginnings and Endings

A lot of advice to beginning novelists hoping to sell their work emphasizes the importance of a beginning that grabs the reader by the throat and makes he or she compelled to keep reading. And that, at the same time, sets the tone of the novel and provides accurate cues as to what it will be about.  In this respect, one cannot outdo Jane Austen’s opening sentence in Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

This is so well known and so often cited that it is easy to forget what a thing of beauty it really is. What it accomplishes, in less than 25 words, is nothing less than to set out the major themes of P&P: money and marriage, to be sure, but also the power of public opinion, which functions as a kind of Greek chorus throughout the work. In addition, it establishes, in this single, masterful sentence (which pays homage to her favorite Dr. Johnson at the same time it subtly mocks him), the prevailing tone of P&P, which is a relentless, though good-humored, irony. In fact, the sentence means the very opposite of what it seems to be saying. (Single men in possession of good fortunes, whom the reader meets two excellent examples of shortly in the persons of Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy, seem in no hurry at all to find wives and settle down. They are enjoying the social round, shooting, riding around the country, managing their estates & etc., thank you very much.)

The first sentence. The first page. The first chapter. The first three chapters. Everyone agrees, you have to keep people turning those pages.  But there is an unfortunate lack of attention paid to something equally important, with regrettable results that are visible everywhere one turns: the need for a good ending to a novel.

The list of good books that fall apart at the end is a long and melancholy one, but time grows short and I can bear to mention only a few. (Spoiler alert)  Think of The Mill on the Floss, in which George Eliot, no slouch in the plot game, apparently decided she simply could not  get Maggie Tulliver out of the impossible situation she had gotten her into. So she drowned her!  Along with her brother, who was a bit annoying, but not worthy of death. Yes, we started with a mill, it’s in the title, there are foreshadowings of the flood, but it’s still ridiculous.

Think of The Emperor’s Children, which masterfully evokes a particular time and world (late 20th century, privileged New Yorkers), creates a very complicated and rich plot tending toward a really rockin’ conflict… and then, whoops, deus ex machina alert: The airplanes fly into the Twin Towers. But that actually happened, one might object. And people were really surprised! And it did change everything! All true. But this only points out how different fiction and real life really are. Because fictionally, it was totally unsatisfying. It was not integrated into all the things that had  happened up until that point.

A good ending has to be both inevitable and surprising. History can do the heavy lifting, as in War and Peace or  The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt, but history has to fit into the plot in a logical way, not be shoehorned in as in The Emperor’s Children.

I find very few good endings. Perhaps I expect too much. Or perhaps people spend too much time polishing those first three chapters and think the ending will take care of itself.

Here are a few books with endings that did not let me down:

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

I am struggling with my own ending right now. I know what has to happen but exactly how I get there is not yet clear. Though this post may not seem to drip it,  I feel great sympathy for writers who write otherwise lovely books and blow the ending, because I see,  now, how narrow and steep the way is, how easy it is to go wrong.