Just Tell Me How It Ends

By Matthew Cheney

There's something to be loved about endings. The end of the road, ends and means, where everything ends up. Even bad ends can be appealing, and loose ends are the only ones the human mind seems inclined to loathe.

In writing various reviews of recent books and short stories, I've noticed my own tendency to criticize how authors end things. Maybe I'm just being a frustrated writer and trying to rewrite what somebody else has written, but I hope not. I suspect the real reason is that I have a higher tolerance for ambiguity than most readers and writers, and that I am suspicious of stories that tie themselves up too neatly, because life is stuffed full of contradictions, paradoxes, and grey areas that defy any satisfying conclusion. One of the great abilities of art is to be able to portray all of the forces that pull us away from easy endings, and so stories that give in to the natural yearning for life to be less ambiguous are pleasant and comforting, but ultimately unsatisfying.

One of my favorite plays, Dark Ride by Len Jenkin, ends with all the characters chanting, "I'm not interested in philosophy. Just tell me how it ends." Grand visions are more appealing than rational thought, and clear endings are much more in vogue than messy middles. Apocalyptic Christianity is as popular as ever, offering a vision of an ending that millions of people, apparently, desire. Radical environmentalists are fond of their own vision of apocalypse, one in which humanity is punished for the sin of existing and ends up choking to death on itself. Proclaiming eschatology to be the only way to think, people who are sure they know how everything is going to end are more self-righteous than just about anybody else. "The truth" to them becomes a code word for the last pages of a book they never liked in the first place, and philosophy is just a toy for prompting wet dreams of unearthly delights.

Meanwhile, Hollywood blockbusters destroy sense and sensibility with bombs, aliens, ice ages, floods, God, robots, plagues, tornadoes, and stilted dialogue. Certainly, a little bit of simple-minded philosophy is always a nice way to get us to these endings, but it's hardly the main attraction. We like special effects and mass death, not existential metaphysics or scientific rigor.

Nonetheless, like anybody else, I'm fond of end-of-the-world stories, and I certainly don't think humanity is immortal or infallible, but I do worry about the pornography of apocalypse. It sometimes feels grotesque to allow myself to be entertained by imaginary representations of chaos and carnage.

Richness of imagination, though, can make fiction rise above a fascination with abominations, and the most deeply imagined stories are about more than clever endings. Apocalyptic subject matter can be used intelligently and even morally—the twentieth century produced at least two such novels that come immediately to mind: George R. Stewart's Earth Abides and Jose Saramago's Blindness. What differentiates powerful, lasting stories from cheap and sensationalistic ones is the degree to which the author has imagined not only the details of the plot, characters, and setting, but their implications.

An attraction to true apocalypse is a more difficult subject, because it involves the suffering of actual people. I don't much like to watch most television news shows, because they seem designed to appeal to viewers' vicarious thrill in peering at other people's miseries. Such a fixation is nothing new, as anybody who knows some old ballads or folk tales can tell you, but I prefer to watch things that aren't so shamelessly pitched toward the basest of reactions, even if the reaction itself is an old and venerable one. Recent technologies allow access to more vivid and immediate imagery, but compared to the savagery seen by cultures of the past, the violent voyeurism of life in the televised world is relatively tame. (One of Shakespeare's biggest rivals for audiences was the bear-baiting ring near the Globe theatre.)

It's a sobering thought that thoughout history, violence has only been considered immoral by fanatics and crackpots—most of the violence of the past has been justified by some sort of moral majority, whether via the religious morality that has propelled so many crusades, witch burnings, and sacrifices, or the political morality that has justified genocides, torture chambers, and executions.

Violence and atrocity, whether morally justified by somebody or not, are also entertaining for observers viewing from a position of safety. Somebody else's nightmare can even be a way for us to get in touch with our feelings. Consider, for instance, the Holocaust, an atrocity which got its own adventure movie with Schindler's List and has in the last decade or two become, at least in the U.S., the most popular way to teach school kids to be nice to each other—textbook publishers and nonprofit organizations churn out an endless supply of "Holocaust units," and there's an entire genre of young adult novels dedicated to "Holocaust literature." There is something disturbing about how many people have built lucrative careers from creating a nearly infinite supply of stories with beginnings, middles, and ends about the horrors committed by the Nazis. And yet, though it has the potential to create genocide kitsch, such commodification is usually well-intended and supposed to have salutary effects—at their best, it is said, films and novels about atrocities force us to imagine what we might have done, who we might have been, and therefore they possess the potential to help us become more actively compassionate and peaceful people. At their worst, though, they evoke aesthetic or sentimental pleasure from the most barbaric acts.

Stories of catastrophe and apocalypse, whether real or fictional, can create an unjustified sense of our own exceptionalism. "If the end of the world comes around, I'll definitely be one of the survivors, and won't it be swell!" we say while reading about the majority of a population being destroyed. (Such feelings remind me of a poll I saw a few years ago that found something like 20% of Americans thought they were in the upper 1% of the country's wealthiest people.) Reading about one atrocity or another, we flatter ourselves with the notion that we would not be part of the oppressive majority, that we would not be committing the crimes, that we would, rather, be contributing to the continuance of life rather than to its end.

Wanting to know how it all ends, with nothing left loose to sway in the ontological breeze, is a kind of cop-out, a shortcut to the easy emotions and packaged fantasies that simplify the raggedness of life. On the other hand, without knowing the end of something, it's hard to assign much meaning to it, and I can certainly understand why a writer like Bertolt Brecht thought the moral should come before the story rather than after it. Life is not a fable, though, and to force simple meanings on it is to deny the many paradoxes of existence, the complex bends and turns of every day lived by every person.


Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including English Journal, Locus, SF Site, Failbetter.com, and Ideomancer. He writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus. Read more of his columns in our archives.