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Reading FUNdamentals: Surprising(ly Bad) Endings

March 25, 2010

Fair warning:  I’m going to ruin the ending of a book for you.  But chances are it wasn’t a book you were going to read, so I’m not going to feel very bad about it.

That book is called Next by James Hynes.  If you want to read it then do not read any further.  Or you do so at your own risk, so don’t go crying to me about spoiling things for you.

I’m not going to do this out of spite, although that is a delicious side effect of it.

No, I’m going to do this for illustrative purposes, so that you can understand why I hate some (if not all) surprise endings.

It would be kind of dumb to discuss the ending of a book and then not discuss the specifics of it.

OK, I think I’ve stalled enough to give people their “spoiler space.”  I learned by doing customer reviews on Amazon that people are very sensitive about that sort of thing.

Anyway, Next by James Hynes is about an editor at the University of Michigan named Kevin Quinn who is going through your typical mid-life crisis.  He’s living with a woman named Stella (who is also his boarder) who is about 15 years younger than him.  He isn’t sure he loves her.  Her biological clock is ticking and he’s reluctant to try making a baby with her.

Instead of just buying a Miata like many middle-aged men, Kevin applies spur-of-the-moment to a job he sees in Publisher’s Weekly.  He’s surprised when the company offers him an interview at their headquarters in Austin, Texas.  When the book begins, Kevin is on a plane bound for Austin.  He splits his time between obsessing about the young Asian girl (whom he refers to as Joy Luck because that’s the book she’s reading) in the seat next to him and worrying about terrorist attacks because of a recent attack in Glasgow performed by a white Scottish guy who was also named Kevin.

Once the plane lands, Kevin finds himself with a lot of time on his hands before his interview in the afternoon.  He spends a lot of this stalking Joy Luck after seeing her pass by a Starbucks.  He follows her to her workplace at a rival coffeehouse and then to a Whole Foods-type grocery store where her boyfriend works.  Along the way he finds out her name is Kelly.  Kelly reminds him of Lynda, not in appearance but in attitude.  Kevin dated (and screwed) Lynda for one summer about thirty years earlier.  About that time he was also obsessing about a girl referred to only as The Philosopher’s Daughter.

Kevin’s stalking ends with him being tripped up by a dog and being knocked unconscious briefly.  He also scrapes up a knee.  Fortunately a Latina doctor named Dr. Barrientos is there to help him.  Except Kevin offends her first by calling her a nurse and then later with his bumbling attempts to remain politically correct.  She takes him to lunch and then to a department store to buy new clothes for his job interview.  Meanwhile, Kevin continues obsessing about his relationships with women past and present.

All through this I was following along and enjoying the book.  It helped that Kevin is from Ann Arbor and I live in Metro Detroit and lived in Michigan my whole life.  Home team baby!  But more than that, Hynes’ writing was witty and fun, so that it wasn’t a dreary slog like it could have been if he was just moping around.  And even while he’s stalking Kelly it never got too creepy.

So as Kevin was arriving at the building for the much-ballyhooed interview I was looking forward to seeing how the interview would go and what he would decide to do about Stella and his life in Ann Arbor if he got the job.

But I never got the chance.  And here’s where the spoilers come in.

Instead, what happens is that as Kevin is waiting in a conference room terrorists fire a missile into the top of the skyscraper he’s in–the tallest building in Austin.  I tore through the last 50 pages or so hoping and praying this was a dream or hallucination or something and that the book would get back on track.  Sadly not.  Instead, Kevin is joined by “The Yellow Rose of Texas” a woman he met briefly at the Starbucks in the morning.  As the fire and smoke approaches them, they finally decide to jump off the building.  As he’s falling to his death, Kevin decides that he’s looking forward to what happens next and that really raising Stella’s kid might not have been so bad.  Splat!  We’re done.

Really?  That’s how it ends?  I’m supposed to believe that terrorists attack Austin, Texas–AUSTIN freaking TEXAS!!!–and that exact building at that exact time on that exact day?  Are you kidding me?  You really expect me to believe that?

Of course you can bring up 9/11 but that was the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, two very well-known American landmarks.  This is the tallest building in the 15th largest city in America.  So  I’m really supposed to believe that terrorists are planning to make a bold statement by blowing up a building in the 15th largest city in America?  Yeah, right.

I suppose there have been nut jobs who’ve done something similar like in Oklahoma City back in 1994.  But really, come on.  If you’re going to end the story with some random event, why do you bother having the rest of it?

This in writing terms is a classic example of deus-ex-machina.  It’s defined in Wikipedia as:

A deus ex machina is a plot device whereby a previously intractable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with an often contrived introduction of a new character, ability, or object. It is generally considered to be a poor storytelling technique by critics because it undermines the story’s internal logic, although sometimes the story itself is designed to have an intention to go that route.

Probably the author had an intention to go that route to shock us and make some statement about terrorism.  (What, that it’s completely random?  That it’s more important than mid-life crisis ramblings?  That at any moment I could die?)  Though as the name suggests, you might as well have had “the gods” intervene with Zeus or Odin or Jehovah smiting Kevin with a thunderbolt.  It’s just as random and just as probable.  For that matter you could have had him get run over on the way there or shot by some random wacko.  Or go through the interview and have the plane crash on the way back.  Those are just as probable as well–if not more so.

What endings like this say to me is that the author doesn’t have confidence in his story enough to let the story end itself.  Instead he has to intervene like the gods of old and inject some nonsensical event to push things where he wants them to go.  It makes me think he got to this point and thought, “Crap, people are going to think this is boring.  I know–surprise terror attack!  That will wake people up!”  In my experience if people are bored by page 250 they aren’t going to be reading the book.  They’ll have already pitched it in some dark corner never to see the light of day again.  If you’re going to have a random terror attack to spice things up, do it in the first 50 pages.  That’ll get me hooked!

Actually that’s not a bad idea.  He could have led off with Kevin as he’s sitting in the smoke and debris of the building, waiting to die.  Then we could have flashed back to the beginning of the day.  That way there’s no WTF factor later on.  I mean it’s still preposterous but that way readers are hooked in from the beginning and they’re not thrown totally for a loop later on so at that point they’ll at least have made peace with what’s going to happen.

Though I would not have included the terrorist attack at all because I thought the story was strong enough to stand on its own without any tricks or gimmicks.  (Clearly the author and editor felt differently about it needing a gimmicky ending to separate it from the herd.)  I would have just let Kevin go to the interview and let the pieces fall where they may.  Maybe he would have got the job or maybe he wouldn’t have.  Maybe he would have gone back to Stella or maybe not.  The one thing I do know is that the ending “epiphany” could have been achieved without turning the book into The Towering Inferno.

If it were me I would have had “The Yellow Rose” be either the interviewer or someone he bumps into shortly thereafter.  They could talk and he realizes through this that moving to Austin and seeing someone his own age might not be such terrible things after all.  Or maybe he decides to ask Stella to come with him.  Though really ending up with “The Yellow Rose” would be more what I’d do.  If you ever read any of my literary work–which you haven’t–you’d know setting up the character with a consolation prize like that is something I like to do.  I did it in my novel Where You Belong and a few earlier ones available in my archives.

The literary ending would have been what I call the “non-ending” where Kevin gets on the plane and still doesn’t know what he’s going to do.  I traditionally hate “non-endings” for part of the same reason I hate deus-ex-machina endings:  why bother with the rest of the book if it’s not going to go anywhere and thus largely be rendered moot?  I would have hated a non-ending but it’s preferable to the actual ending.

Don’t get me wrong by thinking I’m the kind of guy who needs “And They Lived Happily Ever After” at the end to finish things off.  As I said above, my own stories don’t end that way.  I prefer bittersweet endings that usually leave room for more but at least this phase of the story is over.  As in Where You Belong, there’s the possibility that more could happen (since Frost doesn’t die–spoiler alert!) but the phase of his life revolving around the Maguire twins is over.  Things haven’t ended Happily Ever After but for that stage of his life they have ended.

A book I really enjoyed because it avoided huge plot twists was Anne Tyler’s Pulitzer-winning Breathing Lessons.  Really the only major plot element happens before the story begins, where someone Ira and Maggie Moran know passes away.  The story then covers the day of the funeral, involving a lot of seemingly commonplace events.  Tyler didn’t feel the need to have Ira and Maggie involved in a nasty accident on the way home or to have some random burglar barge into the house and kill them as they were going to bed.  Instead, she had confidence enough in her story and its characters to let things work themselves out naturally.  Basically it was “tomorrow is another day.”  And that was fine with me.  I liked the Morans because they felt like real people and I’d followed them all through the story, so I didn’t need some big showy plot twist to jumpstart my interest or make the point for me.

My point is that when you’re writing a book you should have a similar confidence in your characters and story to let it finish itself in a logical manner.  If you have to go to a gimmick like a deus-ex-machina device then it should say something about the rest of your story as a whole.  Mainly that if you think it’s not exciting enough through the first two-thirds, you should probably be incorporating more excitement there instead of trying to jam it into the third act.  If you think there’s no way to make your point without some kind of plot twist then you probably need to just think a little harder about what it is you’re trying to accomplish.  Chances are you can resolve the matter without having to resort to something so foolish.

Though this sort of deus-ex-machina ending is similar to another book just about every American has read.  That would be Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens’ The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  In that book, Huck and a runaway slave named Jim are taking a raft down the Mississippi to freedom.  This story is ruined in the last act when Huck and Jim arrive at a town and in comes Huck’s friend Tom Sawyer, who then proceeds to force Huck and Jim to go through his idiotic shenanigans to free Jim.  It was an attempt at injecting humor into the story that fell completely flat, to the point where my high school literature teacher told us to stop reading before Sawyer’s arrival.  I think (and there’s probably some literary critics who would agree or disagree) that Twain/Clemens was concerned a story about a white boy and a black slave bonding would enrage late 19th Century Americans so he wanted to bring Sawyer in to lighten the mood.  Really he, like Hynes, should have had faith in his story and its characters and let the chips fall where they may.  If the public hated it, then too freaking bad.

Just remember that if you aren’t going to be brave enough for your story and its characters, then who is?

Sunday I conclude my March Madness-style tournament to determine which author I would save in the event of a random terror attack or rogue asteroid or some other deus-ex-machine device that would destroy the world as we know it.  And then Tuesday I’ll be getting into another bugaboo of new writers:  Outlining.  Stay tuned for that and more!

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One Comment
  1. Absolutely correct, of course. If the ending hasn’t grown organically out of elements set up earlier in the tale, then it’s a cheat. Nothing wrong with a surprise ending; most mysteries end with what is (the author hopes) a surprise, but the clues are there for anyone to see, assuming s/he is savvy enough.

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