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Shake Things Out and Dance ~ On Endings July 20, 2011

Posted by Patricia Ann McNair in Blog posts, Conversations, Things and Stuff, Why The Short Story? A Conversation Among Writers.
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There’s a magnolia tree in our back yard that just doesn’t seem to want to bloom this year. I’ve talked with my neighbors about it; the reactions are different.

“I think it’s dead,” one of them says.

“Give it time,” another says.

“Are those buds?” another asks.

“It’s dead,” the first one says.

Each day I go out on my back porch and stare at it, its limbs big and gray and, for the most part, empty. I’m afraid it might be dead, but I just don’t know. It has bloomed ferociously in years past, a canopy of white and pink blooms that stretched over the power wire, over the fences that separate four urban yards.

Now know that our spring in Chicago was something other than spring. It was cold and wet, with the occasional burst of a bright hot day. Perhaps the tree got confused. “Is this really spring?” it asked its internal tree blooming clock, “then why is it so fucking cold? Magnolias don’t like cold.” And now it is summer in Chicago, hot and sticky, sunshine overhead like something sharp and dangerous. The tree is still gray-limbed.

All the other magnolia trees on the block burst open with their flowers weeks ago.

“Are those buds?”

And this makes me think about endings. Really. Sometime last year Philip and I had a conversation with my nephew and his wife about the movie “The Wrestler.” You know it, right? The Mickey Rourke comeback vehicle? Yes? Anyway, my nephew, Dan, a very good guy and superb father (albeit not much of a reader) was more than frustrated with the ending of that movie. If you haven’t seen the movie, and might, I won’t entirely spoil it for you here, I promise. The ending is ambiguous. You don’t know for certain what will happen next, but depending on your take of the rest of the film, you might assume that things are not going to go on happily ever after. But you must make this assumption. It is not spelled out for you. And there are other loose ends as well about relationships, choices, etc.

“Pick a lane,” Dan says. Insists, more like it. “Why do I have to do the work for you?”

Interesting. Contemporary literary fiction (and independent film for that matter) often does not pick a lane when it comes to endings. It is not unusual when a story leaves things open-ended. And frankly, I like this. I like this a lot. Because for me, good fiction is often a reflection—an interpretation—of life, and let’s face it, life is an open-ended thing. We rarely know with absolute certainty what will happen next.

“Are those buds?”

So getting around to Gerard Woodward’s questions from an earlier post: What is the best way to end a short story? Open endings? Closed endings? I’ve already said that I am a fan of the open-ended ending, but that does not mean that I think this is the best way to end each story. Dennis McFadden does a great job of going through a number of his stories and comparing their endings and the effectiveness of each. And among those things he says, Dennis reminds us that a story’s ending is not really about the ending at all, but about the whole rest of the story.

And while I’m a reader partial to the open-ended qualities of some endings of short stories (James Alan McPherson’s “The Story of a Scar” comes to mind here) I also understand the frustration some of my reading colleagues have with a certain level of ambiguity. Sometimes I agree. I am not a fan of the riddle or the “choose your own exit” type of ending. In my piece “Deer Story,” a short-short from The Temple of Air, close to the end is the parenthetical statement “(there just isn’t any other end to this story).” And that is really it, isn’t it? The simple answer to all of Gerard’s questions about endings—the end of any story must feel as though there isn’t any other end.

Easy, huh? Yeah, right.

Skipping ahead to Gerard’s last question “…what are your favourite stories in terms of their endings?” I’ll share with you some endings I admire quite a lot and why I do. SPOILER ALERT: if you read these examples, you will know how the stories end…

One of my favorite contemporary stories is “The End of FIRPO in the World,” by George Saunders. It is a rather short, short story, that follows a young boy, Cody, very closely (read: in his internal point of view even as the story is told in third person) while he rides a bicycle around his neighborhood making plans for revenge on those who have embarrassed or slighted him. The story starts out funny in its childish imagination and hyperbole, but as it unfolds, we learn more about this kid and his sad, sad existence that leads him to feeling particularly lousy and without value most of the time. We really start to side with him just as he is hit by a car. And in his own end, Cody begins to go back over his own worthlessness and what he thinks of as his complicity in the worthlessness, even as a man (“stickman,” Cody calls him) with hairy nipples and coffee-smelling breath leans over him to give him comfort:

“The announcers in the booth above the willow began weeping as he sat on Mom’s lap and said he was very sorry for having been such a FIRPO son and Mom said, Oh thank you, thank you, Cody, for finally admitting it, that makes it nice, and her smile was so sweet he closed his eyes and felt a certain urge to sort of shake things out and oh Christ dance. You are beautiful, beautiful, the stickman kept saying, long after the boy had stopped thrashing, God loves you, you are beautiful in His sight.”

My comments: First, just listen to these sentences. Hear that rhythm? The breathless sweep of the first sentence that stops and hits the beats on “Oh thank you, thank you…” and then sweeps away again until we hit “and oh Christ dance.” And all the repetition in the very last sentence adds a few more beats as well. The ending word “sight” drops a bit, closing things up.

What is tricky about this ending is that sometimes readers don’t get that the boy has died (I warned you I was going to spoil it!) I am not certain why they wouldn’t; maybe because Saunders doesn’t come out and say plainly that the boy died. But think how much less beautiful, how much less effective this would be if it were spelled out for us. Because, frankly, telling it so plainly would make the story about the kid dying, and it isn’t that. It is about transcendence, this ending, about grace. Cody, who feels ugly and worthless has become beautiful—and we as readers likely understand that he has always been beautiful, he just wasn’t allowed to know that before this ending.

A time-honored tradition, by the way, is killing a character to end a story. And this works best, in my opinion, when the tragedy of the story is earned by more than just the death.

In Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor, the entire story is tragic, really. A mother and son whose relationship is deeply flawed, a world that is changing in ways that neither one of these characters is fully equipped to deal with. Missteps and intentional slights and hurt feelings. And then, yes, a death.

The mother, who has been punched by a black woman for insulting her, lies on a deserted city street, dying. Her son cries for help:

“Help, help!” he shouted, but his voice was thin, scarcely a thread of sound. The lights drifted farther away the faster he ran and his feet moved numbly as if they carried him nowhere. The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.”

Is that beautiful or what? How different would the ending be if it flat out said: “she died, thus entering him into the world of guilt and sorrow.”

So maybe that’s it. Maybe why I am attracted to open endings (or at least those whose endings are not spelled out completely) is because closed ones, spelled out endings, can call so much attention to themselves. Sometimes more than a story wants them to. An example of what I mean here is the much anthologized “The Story of an Hour,” by Kate Chopin.

Another short-short story, this one covers the hour a woman, Mrs. Mallard, faces immediately after she learns her husband has died in an accident. The story is told in the late 1800s, and for obvious reasons it is celebrated a story with a feminist point-of-view. The woman, who has loved her husband, still recognizes the possibility of her freedom without him:

“Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own. She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.”

This is what is at the heart of the story—a woman who feels grief and relief at the prospect that she will no longer be a wife, that she will be her own person. This might have been a rather daring concept more than a century ago, bold of Kate Chopin to put into words. But the complexity of this short story is tied not to the politics or the social agenda, it is tied directly to this complexity of emotion of a bereaved woman.

In the very end, Mr. Mallard shows up unharmed, and the Mrs., being afflicted with a bad heart, dies:

“When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease—of joy that kills.”

A sort of punchline, if you will. The first time that I read this story and thought back over it some days later, I had totally forgotten that last line. To me the story was more remarkable without the death, without the punishment for Mrs. Mallard feeling the possibilities of being a woman alone. That last line makes the story very sure-footed; it makes the author’s intentions clear. But the life Chopin had created on the page prior to the last line was more interesting to me without this ending. However, the story is not mine. Chopin has the right to her own ending. (Perhaps a piece on stories we love with endings we don’t would be interesting. Your thoughts?)

Back to my magnolia tree. It is July now, and many weeks have passed since I first started my tree bloom vigil. The tree, alas, is still without flower, without the least bit of green. We have decided—those of us who care in this city apartment building—that it is indeed dead. We might have known this all along, and yet:

“Are those buds?”

In Vanessa Gebbie’s book Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story, there is a piece by Elaine Chiew called “Endings.” It starts with a brief bit about the impending end to her mother-in-law’s life, and the family’s desire for a different ending:

“Yet, the more she faded, the more we hoped.”

Chiew goes on to talk about how we suspect certain endings even as we long for others, and how that can be a good thing:

“This sense of narrative expectation and engagement, retaining a degree of mystery or openness where the reader may hope or wonder or accept a different ending, tells me the ending is well-earned…”

Is that it, then? An ending is best when it can perhaps go in a different direction, but for this story, in this very moment, there is no possible alternative? Inevitable—perhaps even predictable sometimes—but definitely, definitely inevitable.

“A&P” by John Updike. Sammy makes the heroic stand by quitting his job at the grocery store because his boss has embarrassed some girls he’s been admiring. The Hollywood ending would be that he dumps his stuff and runs out the door and into the arms of the princess, that she would be waiting for him, ready to bless his heroics with her body. The real ending? The perfect one? Updike wrote it:

“I look around for my girls, but they’re gone of course….Looking back in the big windows, over the bags of peat moss and aluminum lawn furniture stacked on the pavement, I could see Lengel in my place in the slot, checking the sheep through. His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he’s just had an injection of iron, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.”

Now that’s how things really, go, yes? And on a technical note, see how that paragraph started with present tense and then moved into past? All hope and optimism in the beginning (present tense)—how things might be—and then how they really were in the end (past.)

I am going on too long here. One more thing, though. In a recent post by Tania Hershman on her blog TaniaWrites about ShortStoryville, the half-day recent festival held in Bristol in connection with the Bristol Short Story Prize and celebrating the short story, she talks about “doing a little short story dance after reading an excellent story.” And maybe that is the best indicator of all as to when a story is finished just right: when you reach the end you feel (pardon me, George Saunders, for the borrowing) “a certain urge to sort of shake things out and oh Christ dance.”

◊◊◊

And yes, speaking of endings, this is the last post in the series “Why The Short Story? A Conversation Among Writers.” Thanks again to my fellow contributing short story writers: Gina Frangello, Vanessa Gebbie, Dennis McFadden, and Gerard Woodward. It has been great sharing ideas with you all. Thank you for your thoughtfulness, willingness, and industriousness. We got a lot of work done.

For more conversations with writers and about writing, please visit the Conversations category of this site. To read this conversation—”Why The Short Story?” —in its entirety, follow this link.  -PMc←

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