Friday, June 6, 2008

Where Will It All End?

Among the many technical and emotional joys to be found reading and rereading Richard Price's earlier novel, Clockers, and his most recent, Lush Life, there is the tacit agreement that the good guys don't always win, the bad guys don't always lose. The surprise comes not so much from seeing justice triumphing as an abstract condition but rather to see how much justice will be done at a particular time and how much is held over for later.

Short stories used to be more perfervid in their allocation of justice. Lately they have become more advocates for a force almost as forceful as justice. I speak of ambiguity.

We have moved, I observe, from living dangerously to living ambiguously. Living ambiguously may be more dangerous than living dangerously because of the uncertainty, the tension of wondering when things will become more dangerous--all this rather than the creeping boredom of ceaseless danger.

I believe there are reasons why short stories end on more ambiguous notes than, say, A Cask of Amontillado or An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, or even To Build a Fire. We have grown as a result of those stories, grown more cynical and sophisticated. As they did with so any other things of style and technique, the short stories of Ernest Hemingway added to the ambiguity syndrome, particularly some of the Nick Adams stories, say Big Two-Hearted River, or Hills Like White Elephants. In more recent years, in this century, the ambiguity is more deliberate than ambiguity merely for the sake of not being specific it is put in place to draw the reader artfully into visualizing a conclusion. Often this conclusion is a bundle of emotion, as well-orhestrated and sensual as a bouquet of flowers.

Do not, therefore, do the reader's work for him. Show the reader the direction you have in mind, then end with a good shove. To my mind and senses, the best ending seems at first blush a bit abrupt. You mean, That's it? Then, like an Altoid aftertaste, the other shoe drops and the ambiguity coalesces--off the page.

They all lived happily ever after is more ambiguous than it sounds because it raises questions that at the present time make you
question such things as what happiness is, and because of certain liberties taken with logic and semantics by a former president of the United States, oh, you know, that one, William Jefferson Clinton, it is fair to ask how long you mean when you say ever after.

I remember still the instant wisdom I got some years back when Barry Spacks called to invite me to one of his classes at UCSB to hear a presentation by an author he knew I admired greatly. I asked Bobbie Ann Mason to talk about why she'd seen fit to end her remarkable and memorable story, Shiloh, at what seemed to be an up-in-the-air moment. It was her answer that helped me forge my vision about ambiguity. "I ended it there," she said, "because that's where all the energy ran out."

I found it impossible to let that remark fade down the hallways of my memory, and I have thought long and hard since about where to end a story, and learned from countless attempts at trying to tack endings onto stories I did not realize were already done, the defensive sound staying on too long brings to the story.

Mark Twain actually said, "Put all your eggs in one basket--and watch that basket." I'm taking liberties by suggesting Bobbie Ann Mason's contribution as being, "Put all the available energy into a story situation--and watch that energy."

1 comment:

x said...

This is extremely fascinating and I don't even know what to say except I love the way your posts put literature in thematic context and weave one writer and their work through another on a meandering path of associative thinking that always comes back to square one. I don't know of any other blog that does this. You are truly unique in the blogosphere and probably everywhere else, too.