By Parvati Sharma
If an unsatisfactory book is like a friend who borrows money and doesn’t return it — a niggling irritation, one day you’ll drift apart — a book with an unsatisfactory ending is the friend who takes your money and drops you from her parties. You feel alone. You feel betrayed. The potential for anger and bitter Facebook updates is high.
Kind of like what happened when I was seven and read The Twits. On hindsight, this must be one of Roald Dahl’s most macabre stories and I loved it. Mr and Mrs Twit were vile and horrid, and when they weren’t being vile and horrid to each other, they were tormenting their caged monkeys or painting their tree with glue to catch birds and bake them. There was even a drawing of two pathetic little bird feet sticking out of a Sunday pie.
When the monkeys and birds teamed up to inflict commensurate punishment upon these villains, I cheered along. And when, on the last page, Fred the Postman entered the Twit homestead and discovered their grisly end, I was prepared to cheer some more. Except, then, I banged up against this last line: “And everyone including Fred shouted ‘Hoorray!’”
The thing is, somehow, I was convinced “including” meant its exact opposite. Could I have looked up a dictionary? I guess, but that’d be an admission of abject defeat, wouldn’t it? Surely the answer lay right before me, on the page! For months it worried me, this Fred’s inexplicable compassion for the ugly couple. Why wouldn’t he shout “Hooray”? Was Fred sad because he’d not been able to deliver their letters? Had I missed the bit where the Twits and Fred ate bird-pie together? Was Fred less a postman and more a symbolic expression of ineffable conscience?
You cannot imagine my relief when the penny dropped.
There is something about a book that demands closure. For one thing, you do literally close the book. And you lay it aside and breathe out a little sigh, and those little gestures mark your return to the world, the real world, the one you’ve been jealously keeping at bay with locked doors and scowls and not-now hand waves.
It’s never the same with movies, is it? Even when you’re watching them with laptop on knees and headphones, movies are somehow independent of your own I-brought-this-alive imagination. The film with a big build-up and low payoff is routine — you shrug it off as fun-while-it-lasted. Books are different.
Which is why I like epilogues, with their assurance that a book needn’t end on its last page at all. Somebody, not just me, is watching over its future. But then, I read Crime and Punishment, the epilogue to which didn’t just befuddle my vocabulary, it devastated my soul. Truly, I hated it: why, o why did Raskolnikov have to get all reformed when he was so much better at being tortured?
I was so incensed, I wrote my own ending. Fortunately, this addendum is lost to world literature. I remember very little of it myself. Maybe I had Raskolnikov escape prison and be free! Be free! Or maybe I had him shot to pieces. Whatever it was, it just couldn’t be all that tame redemption — that was as wrong as Jo rejecting Laurie.
Sigh. Did that little twist test my strength, or what. All readers must suffer this moment, I suppose, the grim realisation that even though you’ve been straining every sinew in the author’s service, you only have to turn a page and be knocked off a cliff.
So then, the more you like a book, the less you want it to end. It may not always wound you, but it may awfully well take you from wow! to whaaa…? in a paragraph. Look at The Reluctant Fundamentalist — what a ride that is, before it jolts to a halt and you’re not sure if you’re supposed to get off or just cough politely and wait for announcements. Or Gone Girl: even the characters can’t be buying that end. Maybe they change it when no one’s watching.
Then, of course, there’s the book that begins and continues and ends perfectly. This is the friend who becomes your lover, and you will therefore get many things from it — but not closure. You can’t stop talking about it. You read it once, then immediately want to read it again. You thrust it upon your friends and are offended if they don’t like it. Not only has the book understood you perfectly, it’s spoken your deepest secrets aloud. You are forever changed.
But nothing so perfect can remain. As it always knew it must, the book returns to its kind, upon its shelf. And you, torn between mourning and hope, turn once more to Chapter One.
Parvati Sharma is the author of Close to Home
The story appeared in print with the headline And In The End