I have this thing. Possibly it’s an issue, possibly it just demonstrates I’m fairly sane. It’s this: I feel strongly that all stories should have conclusions.
That shouldn’t be up for debate, right?
But seriously folks, I’ve read way too many books lately in which this really basic element of storytelling does not occur. Picture it: I’ve got the latest/oldest/most classic of all possible novels. I’m reading. I’m investing. I’m going along with it, I’m getting into it, I’m sure there’s going to be some form of climax – and then there isn’t. The story waffles off. Nothing is resolved.
Maybe this is postmodernism. Maybe it’s art. It’s definitely bloody annoying.
I recently went to the trouble of reading Neal Stephenson’s ‘Cryptonomicon’. For reasons beyond my understanding, this seems to be somewhat of a cult novel – everyone from my fire twirling best mate to my Mum was telling me I had to read it, so I did. It was nine hundred pages long. Normally I wouldn’t tell you this, and I wouldn’t care, but it was nine hundred pages of essential sameness. There was some build-up, there was some gradual progress, but the end was pretty much a continuation of the previous four hundred pages with no change in pitch or tempo. Imagine me, getting excited as I got into the last hundred pages, excited about finally knowing what it was all about and no freaking dice.
‘Cryptonomicon’ was the best example, but there was also the recent ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’, by Jonathn Safran Foer. Lovely book, lovely imagery, history, construction; I loved the first ninety percent and felt very let down by the last twenty pages. Not because it took some cheap way out, but because I honestly felt it didn’t resolve anything. My girlfriend and I argued about it; she thought it was the only way it could have ended. I wasn’t sure, but did know I wasn’t satisfied.
Here’s my thing. So far as I am concerned, telling stories is about understanding the world. I have an English degree and I know there are many other threads to this, but this one is important to me. I don’t think we tell stories unless we intend to learn something from them. Accordingly, most stories are about simplified versions of the world; the world with more reason, less randomness embedded. Coincidences that happen in real life would never be permitted in books, as they seem cheap and tacky.
The best books, best stories, are about very complex versions of the world, things with multiple layers of meaning going on, more characters, more simulated randomness. But what these books have in common is that for us to learn, for us to gain meaning from them, they have to come to some systematic, balanced, satisfying conclusion. There has to be a message underlying the whole thing, to explain why we told the story to begin with; there has to be something that draws it all together.
And if there isn’t, why are we telling the story? I honestly don’t understand. If we’re using stories to learn about ourselves and our world, what use is a story that can’t come together to teach us some symbolic thing about ourselves/our world/the story in question? It’s not as if real life isn’t short on unsatisfying events, no balance and a total lack of closure; I read books precisely to feel as though there is meaning in things. And it bothers me when there isn’t!
I know there’s probably some deeper thing going on here. I said the best books are complex ones with many layers; they’re the ones that more closely resemble life. Maybe this latest trend to not bring books to a climax is just the logical extension of that realism; things are complicated and out of balance, the end. But I hope not. Because if nothing else, books give me hope that there is pattern and meaning in life, and I’m not willing to give that up yet.
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