Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Installment Plan

Most stories have within their movement from the Point A of beginning to the Point B of ending a buried prize. This prize is in large part the thrust of the story, the thing the main character seeks, attempts to earn. Some stories allow the main character to gain the prize, others, especially in the short form, have a kind of close-but-no cigar Point B, others still arrange for the principal character to reject or miss the prize and in so doing achieve an even greater payoff.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the longer the story the more articulated the prize becomes, primarily because there's more room to describe it but also because we have a greater chance to see what the prize means to all concerned. Churl that I sometimes am, I like The Maltese Falcon-type ending because there is always less of it than meets the eye. The characters have inflated the prize beyond measure, in the bargain making us wonder if it is as good as has been represented. My own philosophy is that nothing is exactly as advertised; it is either much better or much worse. Accordingly I tend to respond well to endings happier than expected or worse than anticipated; better still I like those in which the principal character strives for a goal, fails, strives again, achieves the result, then discovers it is not all that much of a prize and in the bargain gains some insight, some wisdom, some connection that is the more enduring prize.

In modern times, the short story holds forth a prize that is often not tangible, has some overarching destiny that will take place off the page and into the reaches of the reader's imagination. Because the story is in fact short, there is less room or time to dwell on the exactitude and complexity of Point B. This quality of opacity is necessary because of the very nature of the short story--nevertheless the story must deliver an emotion that feels like some kind of pause if not an actual finality. They all lived happily ever after is so eighteenth and nineteenth century. It is not that we readers are cynics, denying characters in short stories happiness, rather it is that we are more aware of the lurching, tidal quality of life, of events, of the enormous interconnectedness of the basic social groups we deal with, the family, the work force, institutions, races, genders, professions. Nor are we readers cynics when we look at a happy ending only to wonder how long it will last before these same individuals are beset with another set of problems, options, and choices.

The modern novel is more like the installment plan, payments made before the debt is retired and the prize is fully owned and thus subject to admiration, buyer's remorse, or buyer's ingenuity. How much interest was paid and how did that effect the view of the prize once it was owned free and clear?

Major themes of the human condition have as their fulcrum the inevitability of loss, which is a tangible offset to gain. Weights ad balances, losses, gains. What is the prize of any story? A temporary shelter in the form of a relationship, a friendship, an accomplishment involving people, a sense of having given, having learned, having withstood some test. Weighing against all this is the ultimate loss and how we approach it, how much of our posture and stature we are able to pass along to those we care about and, as writers, to those we will meet only through the medium of our words and stature.

For every prize we strive for and achieve there is the price of its eventual loss,which pales in comparison to the price of never having striven, never having reached whether by hand or mind toward the hand or mind of another.

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