“In my beginning is my end. . . . / In my end is my beginning.”T. S. Eliot
There is more than one way to tell a story—although when it comes down to it, they do all have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In our everyday story-telling, we instinctively begin at the beginning of whatever event is at the heart of the story and then talk our way to the end. So the beginning, middle, and end correspond directly to the actual chronology of it all, although even the most inexperienced raconteur seems to know that drama and suspense can be intensified by judicious pauses, or brief digressions to supply context.
Reality itself rarely unfolds that simplistically; it does not hesitate at the right moment, or offer some wise reflection along the way. Right in the middle of an experience, our memories intrude to remind us that we’ve felt this way before, and our instinctive behavior patterns kick in to make the ongoing development something of a reprise. In other words, keeping to strict chronological time is probably impossible, both in life and in story.
Not surprising then, that story-tellers sometimes begin in medias res – “in the middle of things.” In movie parlance, any given scene can be fleshed out with a backstory. And any beginning is an arbitrarily selected point, because one could always take one step backward and offer yet more context and more causal explanations. Just so, endings can always be added to because any loose thread can become another beginning. Even the tidiest epilogue has within it the seeds of another story or two. Writers of serially published fiction in print or on screen (e.g. Charles Dickens, J.K. Rowlings, Julian Fellowes) know very well how eagerly readers apply pressure for a happy ending or beg for yet another installment
While the earliest novels were usually chronologically organized, it didn’t take long for novelists to experiment with where to begin the story and how to tell it: perhaps in the middle of things, asking the reader to persevere through bewilderment until flashbacks offered clarity; perhaps almost at the end and then working backwards, as it were; perhaps in two entirely different time sequences and then moving two plots forward alternately until they finally converge. And so on. Omniscient narrators, who could explain all motives and see into every character’s mind, gave way to assorted first-person narrators, some trustworthy, some not, thus asking readers to make moral judgments with no more assistance than is offered in real life.
Yet the end is always the end. That is, the story concludes where the story-teller chooses—it may or may not offer the reconciliation and satisfaction we had hoped for. Still, it ends. In the words of medieval romance stories, “there is namore to say.” Whatever the desired effect, the author has shaped the story toward that final end at which point the reader closes the book and begins to reflect on how it all happened and what it might mean.
For most of my life, I took for granted not only that stories had beginnings and middles and ends, but also that readers should submit to the choices authors had made about what went into the beginning, the middle, and the end. I opened all storybooks, chapter books, and novels at page 1 and read my way through to page 120 or 789, however long the story arc stretched. I would not have dreamed of reading the ending first. Indeed, if a friend had already read the book, I ended the conversation promptly at the first hint of what the ending would be. No spoilers, please!
Yet I had begun rereading stories almost as soon as I learned to read, thanks to frequent scarcity of books. If I’d already read everything that happened to be in the house just then, I reread books rather than not read, some of them many times. I learned very early, that while the pleasure of the second reading was quite different from the pleasure of the first, both were delightful. To use Booth’s image from The Company We Keep, I happily spent time with my favorite book friends, even though, or maybe because, I already knew how their lives would turn out. That knowledge actually increased the bond between us. In the absence of suspense, I could savor each moment along the way, instead of skimming frantically to find out what happened next.
Had I been more theologically inclined at that stage, I might have recognized that I was trying on God’s omniscient perspective. Was there not something godlike about smiling yet again at Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett (Pride and Prejudice) in her initial dislike of Darcy and her utter misreading of his character? Or about my tenderness toward Alcott’s Beth (Little Women) going to visit the destitute, knowing full well that Beth would eventually die because of that visit? Or the frisson of dread near the end of Downton Abbey’s Season 3, watching Matthew in his joyous expectations of the future, all ignorant that his future was almost over? To know the end from the very beginning increases our awareness of our own mortality, and might well increase also our discomfort with not knowing how our end will arrive or when.
In the memoir The End of Life Book Club, author Will Schwalbe reflects on his experience of sharing books with his mother during her last year of life. As they negotiate the hopes and fears of terminal cancer, spending hours together during her chemotherapy appointments, they choose books alternately and discuss their reactions. An unusual book club, indeed, with only two members and a known, inevitable ending to its duration.
In one conversation, Schwalbe admits that he “found the book terrifying,” Forgetting his mother’s habit of reading the end of books first, he adds, “And I was very surprised by the ending. Were you?” “Of course not—I’d read it first,” she replies, “I don’t think I could have stood the suspense if I hadn’t known what was going to happen. I’d have been way too worried.”
When I first read that, many years ago, I was appalled. How could you spoil book after book like that? I did not know then that I would eventually join her and become a “spoiler” of endings.
It first happened about a quarter of the way through a memoir I was reading for the world’s best book club (see previous post – “The Measure of a Story”). I felt so wounded by family dysfunction, so appalled by repeated, self-instigated personal disasters, and so offended by life-style choices that seemed morally blind to me, that I skipped to the last chapter in order to bring the pain to a quick end. Then, once I knew that the author had achieved a form of survival that I could admire, I had just enough interest left to read the second-last chapter, and then the third-last chapter, and on. It was an odd reading, for sure, a reversal of the usual order of things. Could one have called that a God’s eye view of a human life? Forward and backward and forward again? Time so elastic as to be irrelevant?
Since then, I have defied the authorial order of things more and more frequently. Maybe it’s the uncertainty of living through the pandemic, maybe, too, my awareness of my own mortality that have made it almost impossible for me to endure too much suspense. Before I can allow myself to become involved I need to be reassured that the ending will not be arbitrary or unbearably bleak, but has evolved appropriately out of the beginning. I want more by way of hope than just a chin-up acceptance that life is horrible but some people can still be courageous.
That must be why, in this year of the pandemic, I’ve become addicted to murder mysteries, that is, those written by authors who use the genre conventions to explore moral dilemmas and social issues rather than exploit violence for dubious ends. In P.D. James’s novels, for instance, I know that the lead character, Inspector Adam Dalgleish, will survive because he has to be there in the next novel. I have also learned to trust James’s moral sense; there will be examination of motives and a nuanced exploration of evil and of goodness. That is enough to make the intervals of suspense bearable. The world will come out right at the end, but not with a superficial “rightness” that ignores reality or the free will of the characters.
The ending has always been in the beginning; it is not random, nor is it pointless. These days that’s more important than it has ever been.
In the uncertainty of pandemic days, when numbers go up and numbers go down, restrictions are tightened, then loosened, then tightened again, I have found comfort, not only in predictable yet nuanced fiction, but also in the ways of the earth. Out of the ending of some organic matter arises the beginning of other organic matter. Life and death will not let themselves be sorted into separate meanings. It is not only in story that beginnings and endings entangle themselves but in our lives as well. Hence the photos that intersperse this text. Out of every ending arise new beginnings; together they are beautiful.
Everything that has a beginning has an ending. Make your peace with that and all will be well.(the Buddha)