Losing The Last Chapter

Dec 1 2012 @ 8:14pm

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Joan Acocella wonders why so many great books have such bad endings:

E. M. Forster, in "Art of the Novel," said that nearly every novel’s ending is a letdown. "This is because the plot requires to be wound up. Why is this necessary? Why is there not a convention which allows a novelist to stop as soon as he feels muddled or bored? Alas, he has to round things off, and usually the characters go dead while he is at work." That’s still not much of an explanation, though. Why do novelists feel that they have to round things off? Is it some basic conservatism? Or classicism?

Her theory? The universe requires a quiet end:

Art, whether fiction or not, is a challenge to entropy, a bumping up of something that must be flattened down again. When you think about it, it’s surprising that art is allowed to exist. It’s always a deviation: overly selective, overly concrete, and unfaithful, not to our actual experience but to our generalizing afterthoughts, the thoughts that get us through life. In "War and Peace," when the excitable young heroine grows up and has kids and gets fat, young readers may be disappointed, but I think that adults may be comforted. Most of us want extraordinary things, after a while, to quit being extraordinary—to end. The stone fell in the water. The ripples ran. Now they should stop. The surface should be smooth again.

(Photo by Kevin Dooley)