Friday, April 25, 2008

All's Well That Ends Well

I've been thinking a lot about endings.

Maybe it's because I have been really struggling lately with my writing, in particular my conclusions. I can usually come up with an effective intro, but I never know how to finish it. I tend to ramble on and on because I'm just not clever enough to come up with that one line that will pull it all together without boringly restating my main points. Dave Barry does a great job with this in his columns. I, sirs, am no Dave Barry.

Maybe my present preoccupation with endings is because Jason and I caught The Truman Show on cable last Friday night. Even though we have seen this movie a dozen times, we were too lazy to change channels. We caught it right around the time Truman talks to Sylvia in the library and asks about her "How's it going to end?" button.

When you think about it, "How's it going to end?" is a pretty interesting thing to ponder in any situation.

I am rather morbid, so I wonder all the time how it's all going to end for me. Will I be old, or tragically young? Will it happen quickly on an airplane or in a car? Or will it be a slow decline into ill health and unconsciousness? Will it be the cancer I've already fought and which seems to hit people in my family more than once, or will it be due to some hidden flaw in an artery or vessel that no one ever seems to see coming?

I am so intrigued by the question of "How's it going to end?" that if I am reading a novel, and due to work, family, or TV obsession am having a slow go of it, I will flip ahead to the end just so that my curiosity is satisfied. Like Harry in When Harry Met Sally, I read ahead to the last page so that, if I die before I get to the last chapter, I will know how it ends. That, my friends, is a dark side.

Recently, a co-worker stopped down in the library and started talking about her favorite book of all time with one of my students. It turns out this teacher's favorite novel is one of my own favorites, A Prayer for Owen Meany. I love this book so much that I've been tempted to use it as a barometer for friendship; if you have read and loved this book, you and I would probably go together like peas and carrots. If you read it and hated it...well, you and I are just not destined for BFF-dom.

We started talking about the ending of that novel, and how beautiful it is. I don't want to spoil it for anyone. I will say that it's Dickensian; all the pieces are wrapped up in a surprising and tear-inducing package, and the final lines rival the famous ending of A Tale of Two Cities (don't judge me for my love of the melodrama of Dickens.) If I could choose how I exit this world, I would choose a Dickens or John Irving-crafted ending where all of the loose ends of my life are tied up, all my questions get answered, and that minor character who popped up randomly in chapter 12 is explained as a long lost father or brother or as the dastardly villain who is finally going to come to justice.

A terrific ending can make a so-so story memorable and outstanding; a bad ending can cause mild-mannered librarians-to-be throw a book across a room in disgust and anger.

I have actually done that a few times in my life. As a high-schooler, I felt cheated by the endings to certain well-loved books that frequently get cited as some of the best novels of all time (cough grapesofwrath cough.) Sometimes these endings seem better on a second reading. I threw Catcher in the Rye against the dashboard of my friend's Escort after completing it during a college visit senior year; when I was forced to revisit it for 20th century American lit in college, I could so much better appreciate a bleak ending that I viewed as a cheat when I was younger and less world-weary. I've been told I would like the ending to another novel I hated in high school (see the above cough) if I re-read it as an adult. But to get to the ending I have to get through the rest of that novel, and I am just not sure I want to go spend a month back in that world.

The most recent blow-up over an ending happened just last week when I finally finished my months-long reading of Atonement. I admit, I had a hard time with that one. Someone at work recommended it with the tagline, "It's worth it for the ending." Well, how do you resist that? So after multiple starts and stops, I tackled the final two sections a couple of weekends ago when I had migraine-induced insomnia. I vowed not to let myself skip ahead to the ending on this one, since I had heard it was a hum-dinger of a twist. I rushed through, merely skimming some sections, placating my boredom with it in parts with the promise of a surprise ending and...KABLOOEY! It was one hell of a twist. So much so that I sat slack-jawed for a moment with the book in my hand at 3 am on a Sunday morning, thinking to myself, "Huh." The next night, I went back and reread one whole section to try to get a grip on it. If you've read it, you know why.

A week later, I was honest-to-God feeling mad about the twist. I felt like I was mislead. Lied to. Manipulated. I spent months (well, not really, because it was only a few minutes here and a few minutes there), MONTHS I tell you reading that book only to learn...(and I can't even tell you what I learned because it would be a spoiler.) When I came across the book still in our bedroom while cleaning yesterday, I gave it a little toss to the corner . That's right. I'm a professional keeper of books who also throws them around when angry.

All this brings me to the real point of this blog.

What are the best and worst endings of a show/series/movie/book that you've ever seen or read?

Here are some of my picks for best endings:

To Kill a Mockingbird (book and movie, natch; when Scout says, "Hey, Boo," I sob)

A Prayer for Owen Meany (book)

The Book Thief (I cannot recommend this novel enough)

The Road (book)

The Giver (book)

"Baggage" (episode of Everybody Loves Raymond where Ray and Debra fight over a suitcase; has possibly the best final scene in sitcom history)

"Casino Night" (episode of The Office where Jim professes his love for Pam)

Sixth Sense (movie)

Gone With the Wind (not so much the "Tomorrow is another day" part, but the "Rhett Butler's tired of your crap and is leaving your ass" part)

The Truman Show (movie)

The Usual Suspects (movie)

The episode of Scrubs where you learn in the last minutes that Jordan's brother died and most of what you've seen in the last 22 minutes has been in Dr. Cox's imagination

Pretty much every season finale of Lost

Just to name a few.

And the worst:

Series finale of Seinfeld

Most Nicholas Sparks novels, and the movies based on said novels

It by Stephen King (I love Stevie, but his conclusions sometimes leave me shaking my head)

Your turn.


Robert K. said...

Memento: Hands down my favorite movie, although Deb hates the movie precisely because of the ending (while I maintain that she is entirely missing the point).

Empire Strikes Back: Episode 4 was goofy fun, but TESB was operatic. No one born after it can really understand what a total shock it was to learn Darth Vader's real identity.

Goblet of Fire: My favorite book in the series, because of the series of surprises at the end. Voldemort killing Cedric was the first sign that this was no longer a "kids'" book series.

The Witching Hour: The slow tension build throughout the book leading to the "oh my god she isn't really doing this, is she?" ending. Classic Anne Rice.

Library Lady said...

Those are great ones. I can't believe I left out TESB. And The Witching Hour--definitely's Anne's best. I seem to remember gasping several times in that book, so shocked was I by the direction she was going.