The Lingering Pleasure of Ambiguity

Lee Rourke, editor of 3AM, on the pleasure of the ambiguous ending:

It’s no surprise that most novels are ruined by their forced “endings”; by our collective desire for them to conclude in an orderly fashion, so that we can get on with our lives after we have closed the book (yes, The Road, I’m looking at you). Marx that told us the novel is a bourgeois construct, its very form reflecting the demands of the bourgeoisie who gave it sovereignty. We hold up our novels like vanity mirrors, hoping to reflect our own dreams, conceits, and liberal aspirations. Duly satisfied with our novels’ conclusions, we put them back down, happy and content. A week later all is forgotten, the previous novel has disappeared from our lives and we’ve moved on to another that’s hopefully a little bit more entertaining.

But not those novels without end, steeped in ambiguity, those novels stay with us. We can’t shake them off, no matter how hard we try. They haunt us, mock us, they hang around waiting for us in the shadows, they disturb our working days, disrupt our sleep, torment us, force us to participate on their own terms. Much like real life does, novels without endings reveal to us the ambiguity that is crucial to our own desire to simply find out things for ourselves. You see, no matter how enjoyable, or how much good old, traditional “common sense” is to be found in our neatly packaged “endings”, I would argue there’s more reality to be found in a novel as supposedly impenetrable as Finnegans Wake, famous for having no beginning or end, than myriad formulaic novels that overtly yearn to capture what it is to be us in their well-worn beginnings, middles and ends. Viva ambiguity, I say!

I have my doubts that an ambiguous ending is a sufficient condition for a novel to endure, or even a necessary one. Moby Dick seems to have lived long in spite of its definitive conclusion (Spoiler alert: everybody but Ishmael drowns). Pride and Prejudice successfully married everyone off and still wrote itself into history. (Yes, people have written sequels, including some incorporating zombies, but none of them will be remembered in twenty years.) Lolita killed everyone off by its end, yet still it endures. As does Kafka’s The Trial, whose protagonist, Joseph K., dies “like a dog”.

That said, I like the ambiguous ending, at least in this sense. I generally prefer a novel to see some of its business to a conclusion–maybe not to one that suits the protagonist’s ambitions or desires, but to a definitive conclusion nonetheless. But other parts of the protagonist’s life should go on. If the protagonist survived the crisis of the novel’s plot, it’s wrong to suggest that it’s clear sailing after that. (Why should the protagonist be luckier than the rest of us?) The seeds of the next problem are usually found in the solution to the last one, so I like it if the novel gestures toward that.

The original ending of Dismantle the Sun had Hal committing suicide. About two hundred pages into the first draft, I realized that this ending didn’t feel true. I’m generally hard on my characters, which is why I always say no when someone asks if I love them. I’ve often killed them off, sometimes messily. But dear old Hal just didn’t strike me as suicidal, and my plan to kill him by having him drive his truck into the frigid Menominee River struck me as too on the nose for a book then called The Ice Age and too mannered. I was dispensing with Hal not for reasons that would have made sense to Hal, but rather for my own convenience and comfort. So instead, I went the other way, bringing some aspects of the book to a close while at the same time bringing Hal, via a commodius vicus of recirculation, back to Howth Castle and Environs.

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