The Great Gatsby

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Just a Little Chunk of Change

“Located along a private beach on 235 Middle Neck Road, this opulent Gatsby-inspiring estate spans over 5 acres. A mere 25 minutes away from New York City by boat, this home is the perfect scene for a roaring 20s party. Just picture the glitz and glamour of fireworks reflecting across the water at all hours of the night.” For a cool $16.9 million you, too, can live in the home that inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald. Pair with our own Sonya Chung on adding The Great Gatsby to her teaching syllabus.

High School Reading as an Act of Meaningful Aggression

Towards the end of each year I do one of those anonymous surveys where I ask the students—high-school sophomores and juniors—how much they read, as a percentage, of each book. I’ve been doing this for the last 10 years or so, and the results are remarkably consistent: most students read most, but rarely all, of each book. About 15 percent read every single word of every single thing, some of it twice. These the kids who would read the contents list of a 7-11 freezer if told, the same students who tend to sit in the front row and take the kind of notes that end up in the Smithsonian. Another 15 percent admit to struggling to even open the books, but would gladly read the 7-11 freezer list because of its novelty value and the refreshing lack of obfuscating adjectives and modifiers. The 70 percent of students in the middle make up the dominant percentage, the ones who often leave little notes, not quite apologia, but regretful explanations about wishing that they had more time to do all the reading because they would have liked to, that they did most of it, that what they read of The Great Gatsby was really good but what with other homework, and athletics, and Uncle Steve’s birthday dinner, and the cousin in Jersey with leukemia, and x not yet having said anything about prom...well, there was a lot to think about. All this at three separate independent schools in different parts of California. Like I said, remarkably consistent results, and results that translate across gender, race, and socioeconomic status. In terms of the not-highly-rigorous breakdown of those not-highly-rigorous statistics you get about 70 percent of the students reading about 70 percent of the material 70 percent of the time. All of which sounds terrific, except that most of the time, most of the 70 percent, and even some of the 15 percent taking Smithsonian-esque notes, see words rather than read them. For most high-school students, the act of “reading” recalls the soft glow of something done at night, before bed, in jim-jams with a cup of hot cocoa—the equivalent of night-time elevator music. Or, if not that, they’re “reading” on the bus, in the car, while standing outside class two minutes before the bell. And, at best, gaining an understanding of situation and context: who did what or said what to whom and where at what time in what kind of weather. Seeing words but not really reading them, a marriage without contact. I want them to see reading as something far more intimate, even fractured at times, as something combative, vulgar, assertive—a constant back-and-forth between reading and rereading, moments of stepping outside the text then coming back and battering at it with questions. Something better done in a flak jacket than pajamas. And high school students hate doing it. Who, what, when, and where, of course, are essential. You gotta figure out who’s sleeping with whom before you ask why. There’s a brother involved? What? No. Wait! They’re on a train? If that part’s hazy, the next stop becomes SparkNotes and PinkMonkey, and you might as well hand out the 7-11 freezer list. But how to truly turn them off? Ask them to annotate. The a-word: to add notes to (a text or diagram) giving explanation or comment. To say they “hate” it not strong enough. The most common disclaimers being about how it takes them out of the story, how if they stop they can’t remember what happened, that it takes too long, that it’s not enjoyable anymore. I’ve had students tell me, with genuine feeling, that reading’s been ruined for them—forever. Well, yes, if “reading” is that thing they do at bedtime with that cup of cocoa, and if that’s the thing ruined forever, then, no, I’m not sorry. How many students do trig curled up in bed without a pen or pencil? So the task has to be to get them to see reading as something a little more combative, which is not to undermine scanning and context. I love scanning and context, reading for the sheer drama of turning the page, for the drama of occupation, of escape—especially on a beach, or hungover, or sitting in 24E on a flight without a functioning TV. But in a high-school English class, the skill of reading as an intimate, assertive thing stands as the thing I’m more interested in—the premise being that if reading were less of a spectator sport maybe we’d inhabit a world better informed, more critical—and critical in a reflective rather than a reactive sense—a world shaped more collectively by thoughtfulness, by magnanimity. But annotate what, students ask? A fair question. And the place to begin is questions, the questions that come after the who, what, when, and where have been answered. Why questions—about place, about character, about motives...about the weather. Questions that pick at the story’s fabric in ways that enhance that fabric as opposed to designing a new one. So, for instance, after reading the first couple of pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby out loud in class, students invariably ask questions about why the novel’s named after Gatsby, about what makes him great, if his father gave him any other advice than the part about not all the people in the world having had the advantages he’s had. About how come the narrator doesn’t know the name for a seismograph. Interesting enough questions, but dead ends, as a couple of the students put it (though at least two of their classmates are adamant that we need to pursue the seismograph thing) because they depend either on plot that hasn’t happened yet or hearsay. Better the question that at least allows for the possibility of an answer through what’s already there rather than depending upon the goose chase of the imagination. So when Nick Carraway says that “[R]eserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope” it might benefit us to ask why? Why “hope” as opposed to something else? Why infinite? And what might this tell us about Nick Carraway’s temperament? Questions that allow us to begin to work out the kind of world Nick Carraway lives in and how that world might interact with ours. The kinds of questions that unnerve what’s in front of us, that give us something to hold onto in terms of plot while, simultaneously, digging a little deeper into that plot. They want to know how many they need. A ball of string question. And I tell them not to go all gung-ho and answer the questions, but to let them sit for a while, the idea being to try and read from inside the story rather than from inside a predetermined perspective. Virginia Woolf calls it the art of delaying dictation: “If we could banish all [such] preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning. Do not dictate to your author; try to become him.” Even in novels, to delay that impulse, that reflex, as long as possible, allowing the piece itself a chance to stand, at least for a moment, outside the moment of presumption. The questions more important, paradoxically, than the answers. It sounds all back to front, but getting students to trust, first and foremost, their own ability to ask questions rather than a teacher’s executive ability to provide answers leads, again, to the kind of critical, reflective impulse our world so desperately need. It allows students access to a way of thinking, a means for seeing, long after they’ve forgotten if affect works primarily as a verb or a noun, or how many suitors Odysseus slays in the great hall. Which brings up the question of quantity. If the ability to read, and think, critically is the primary currency secondary education needs to invest in, then the disfigured mathematical percentage of how many students read how much becomes less important. I’m not sure it really matters if students read all of The Great Gatsby, or Their Eyes Were Watching God, or The House on Mango Street, Macbeth, etc. Of course it’s nice if they do, and it’s nice if they go out into the world with a complex sense of Gatsby’s dream, of Janie’s epiphany, of Esperanza’s journey, Macbeth’s predicament, etc., but I think it’s more important that they know what reading looks like, that they know it as an act of meaningful aggression. We’re not in the business of creating English majors, nice as it would be to fill the world with such people. But until Birnam Wood do come unto Dunsinane, I’ll take empathetic, critical thinkers as a stop-gap. Reading in high school is not about, or shouldn’t be about, numbers of pages; it should be about a way of thinking, a way of seeing. For that, we can focus on certain passages, the certain, crucial passages that most books build to—the golden bricks. As teachers, we can fill in the rest of the building. It’s the skill of reading itself that’s the important thing, perhaps the only thing. That said, they can’t be forced. It tends to work to begin small—maybe one annotation every two pages, but a real one. Not underlining or highlighting—that’s not annotating, that’s underlining or highlighting. Annotating is where there’s something highlighted or underlined and accompanied by a note working out why said moment was underlined or highlighted. Why questions: about reserving judgments and infinite hope. So, one every two pages. And we agree to it as a class. If one person doesn’t do it, we all do jumping jacks. Not literally, though I wish, just like I wish I could pull off having class outside and using saxophones and live macaws as props. In place of jumping jacks, a two-minute free write on some contemporary event, like a wardrobe malfunction. And this is where the larger picture begins to coalesce—the significance of developing a skill through reading that translates into larger worlds, a skill learned in a safe space where poor judgment comes without real consequences, except intellectual ones. The point being that the consequences aren’t human. They’re judgments about characters experiencing pain, triumph, sadness, joy, hurt, and so on, but we can get them wrong and little changes. Getting people wrong in the real world, of course, comes with real consequences, sometimes tragic. The skill of delaying judgment, at least categorically, until sufficient questions are in play stands so powerfully at the center of empathy. To return to Virginia Woolf’s point: if reading can teach us how to begin to push preconceptions about fictional characters further aside (“banish” seems overly hopeful), then reading perhaps serves as a model for a similar push in response to people in the world, and not just those that enter our interpersonal spaces, but also the persons in the worlds outside ours—the cultural, social, and political worlds so often represented in binary ways in the media. To effectively annotate and read the fictional worlds of Jay Gatsby, Janie Crawford, Esperanza, Macbeth, et. al. allows students, ultimately, to be able to do the same for hurricanes, race riots, economic policies, state of the union speeches, even wardrobe malfunctions—but to do so from a place that begins with witness, a place that works aggressively to keep preconceptions at bay—questions not answers. This what real reading can accomplish—an aggressive stance, a flak jacket, that stands as a condition, ironically, for more empathy. Romanticized? Maybe—actually, not even maybe. But still essential. The other part of this resides in stillness. To be still, to hover, inside a piece of literature requires students stopping for moments at a time within the characters and their fates, their worlds. Annotations force them into that space, if only for a moment, alongside a partial stepping back from the worlds circumscribed by their own egos: the teaching of reading as the teaching of stillness, a kind of meditative, cognitive moment where students develop the ability to be intellectually still in a world so often pushing their intellects to move at breakneck speed from moment to moment, a constant shuffling of information, their minds the photons inside the Hadron collider moving at a searing pace. And this is crucial no matter where students go to school, no matter what the classroom: English and History, Science, Math, Art, Foreign Language, Metalwork, etc. Students need to know how to undermine and dismantle the spectacles surrounding them, and how to slow each spectacle down in turn in order to better see the axles turning inside of it. Critical reading is where that stillness begins. Annotations in the margins of Macbeth or a set of scribbled-on sticky notes in Their Eyes Were Watching God are the beginning points of interpreting their worlds, the ones screeching past them without brakes. Image Credit: Pixels.

The Afterlife of F. Scott Fitzgerald

1. Scott Fitzgerald died in Los Angeles on December 21, 1940, age 44, after spending his last 36 months working as a Hollywood screenwriter. He’d stopped drinking by then, but the well-paying screenplay re-write work that brought him to Hollywood had dried up too. With a weak heart, and a chronic lung condition aggravated by heavy smoking, he was increasingly bedridden, laboring away on a long-planned Hollywood novel. Benzedrine got him up in the morning; Nembutal tucked him in. A steady intake of cork-filtered cigarettes, coffee, Coca-Cola, and pans of chocolate fudge, rounded out the medications. They weren’t enough. Two mild heart attacks anticipated a massive third, which quickly ended things. The Tycoon manuscript, approximately 50,000 words in five-and-a-half chapters, was edited promptly by the preeminent critic Edmund Wilson, Fitzgerald’s friend from their days at Princeton, and published by Scribner’s the next year in a combined edition with The Great Gatsby, titled The Last Tycoon (issued in an edited format half a century later as The Love of the Last Tycoon). Readers will find good accounts of Fitzgerald’s Hollywood sojourn in Matthew Bruccoli’s Some Sort of Epic Grandeur and Scott Donaldson’s Fool for Love; while close-up views are rendered in Aaron Latham’s out-of-print Crazy Sundays; F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood and Against the Current, the 1985 memoir of Fitzgerald’s secretary Frances Kroll Ring. But Fitzgerald’s own reports of his struggles helped to cement his legacy. In 1945, The Crack Up, a collection of his magazine articles, notes, and letters, also edited by Wilson, was published by New Directions. Its title was taken from three confessional essays that appeared in Esquire magazine in 1936, shocking then for the abject candor Fitzgerald used to describe a recent nervous breakdown and his wobbly recovery. Widely admired by young academics like John Berryman -- who published a glowing reappraisal of Gatsby in 1945 -- The Crack Up launched a movement in confessional literature that’s lasted to this hour. Once The Far Side of Paradise, Andrew Mizener’s 1951 biography, appeared, Fitzgerald’s brief, dramatic life, as reflected in his writings, became perhaps the central literary legend of the American Century. Gatsby, which had nowhere near the sales of his hit first novel, at last found an audience. Fitzgerald’s L.A. years are typically regarded as a minor coda to a tragic life, and Tycoon as a brilliant fragment of tantalizing promise. However, Tycoon succeeds in expressing a lot: its portrait of L.A., of studio work, of fully seen characters; how Hollywood’s atmosphere of imagination ruins people. Wilson edited Tycoon and The Crack Up to benefit Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda and daughter Scottie, who had been left in no small want at his death. By launching the author’s posthumous career, The Last Tycoon finally let Fitzgerald support his family comfortably with income from his writing, which had been the goal all along. I propose that this revival-after-death was planned by a man aware that time was running out; that at the end, Fitzgerald was working on something that would endure because he wouldn’t finish it; that Fitzgerald had found a way for his death to give Tycoon, a necessarily fragmented tale of loss, a more moving outcome than anything he might dream up. Largely forgotten by 1940, his subsequent literary resurrection was no less important and lasting than that of Franz Kafka, a writer who died in utter obscurity, and whose own unfinished, posthumously published novel, The Trial, Fitzgerald knew very well. 2. He had hit bottom in the summer of 1936 following the disappointing reception of his fourth novel, Tender Is the Night, which he’d struggled for years to finish. At the end of his financial rope because of Zelda’s hospital bills and Scottie’s school tuition, his short story writing, high-paying romantic hackwork for The Saturday Evening Post, was completely blocked. Hiding out at a cheap North Carolina resort hotel near Zelda’s sanitarium, Fitzgerald consoled himself with a steady intake of beer, which, not being gin, somehow didn’t count as alcohol. Without money or prospects, he wrote the abject Crack Up essays for Esquire, then a girlie magazine with literary pretensions published in Chicago. In their wake, miraculously, a sympathetic MGM executive offered Fitzgerald a writing job: $1,000 a week for six months. Out of options, he moved west, where he started re-write work on high profile projects like A Yank at Oxford, The Women, and Gone with the Wind. Edmund Wilson gave Fitzgerald a copy of The Trial in early 1939, during a visit east. In May, Fitzgerald wrote thanking him, the first of his Los Angeles letters Wilson uses in The Crack Up: “It seemed to renew old times [with you] learning about Franz Kafka […]” Fitzgerald wrote another Princeton friend around this time recommending, among other books, “The Trial --fantastic novel by the Czech Franz Kafka which you may have to wait for but it is worth it.” Eighteen months later, the Czech was still on his mind, writing Max Perkins, his Scribner’s editor: “Kafka was an extraordinary Czechoslavakian [sic] Jew who died in ’36 [wrong, but the Crack Up year]. He will never have a wide public but The Trial and America are two books writers will never be able to forget.” He closes: “This is the first day off I have taken for many months and I just wanted to tell you the book is coming along and that comparatively speaking all is well.” He was dead a week later. 3. Franz Kafka died of tuberculosis in 1924, after instructing his friend and executor, Max Brod, to burn his three unfinished novels. Brod instead had them all published in Germany within two years. The Trial’s first English translation appeared in the U.K. in 1936, in the U.S. the following year. To this day, editions of The Trial and The Last Tycoon are remarkably similar in form. Both were edited, with notes, by a close friend of the writer, both include unconnected manuscript episodes, notebook entries, and letters. Consequently, their authors play large off-stage roles in the novels’ wider drama. Some readers might also note how ably Kafka’s air of absurd paranoia translates, in Fitzgerald’s arch romantic vision, to cutthroat goings on in Hollywood. Fitzgerald first went to Los Angeles in the ‘20s, when movie sales of his stories were nearly automatic. He returned needing work few years later, and his drunken, show-off antics at Beverly Hills parties quickly sank his prospects. During both stays he spent time with Irving Thalberg, MGM’s creative chief, who, in the Crack Up year of ‘36 successfully worked himself to death: 37, pneumonia. Thalberg, of course, fascinated Fitzgerald; they were both young, gifted, successful self-made men with glamorous wives (Thalberg was married to Norma Shearer, then MGM’s biggest female star), both preoccupied with popular storytelling. That Thalberg died of overwork the same time as Fitzgerald’s own breakdown made him an irresistible subject. The Last Tycoon begins narrated by a studio chief’s daughter, Cecilia Brady, looking back to when she was twenty, five years before. Like Nick Caraway’s remembrance of Gatsby, she is recalling a dead man -- Monroe Stahr, her father’s studio partner, and bitter rival. An elegiac mood sets in early as Cecilia describes her particular view of the movie colony with a world-weariness more appropriate to a man of forty: “I accepted Hollywood with the resignation of a ghost assigned to a haunted house.” Published recollections of Fitzgerald’s appearance are in striking agreement on just how ghostly he appeared in Los Angeles: pale green eyes, light brown hair, pallid skin, old, dark Ivy League suits (he drove a used Ford sedan); and how modestly he behaved in public, fading into backgrounds when once he demanded attention. According to Beloved Infidel, his lover Sheilah Graham’s bestselling 1958 memoir, she first sees him at a party, a handsome, very pale man sitting in an armchair smoking, smiling at her from across the room one minute, and, when she looks again, vanished the next. Perhaps because Fitzgerald’s writerly dialogue and sense of storytelling was so criticized by movie people, Tycoon is built on talk, and an early scene mercilessly dissects a story conference for a bad romantic B picture. Fitzgerald’s L.A. is as sad as Raymond Chandler’s, cruel as Nathanael West’s, though richer than both. He had, in fact, been relieved earlier that last year to find that his friend “Pep” West’s The Day of the Locust, which he greatly admired, didn’t cover Tycoon’s territory. Cecilia Brady’s monologue soon shifts to a third person narration, though in much the same voice, to describe events she had no way of witnessing. Either Fitzgerald couldn’t quite decide how the story would be told, or was attempting something closer to film narration. Tycoon is held together with cuts, and mood, of making do with fragments. A sense of the incomplete pervades the story. Nothing Stahr touches is ever finished: not the endless line of movies needing his constant attention (in Chapter IV he fires a director from a set, before reviewing dailies from several different productions); not his half-built Malibu house, the novel’s central symbol; not his marriage to his dead wife, a great movie star whose image can’t disappear, continued (as Sheilah replaced Zelda) in her apparent double, Kathleen Moore. Early, or untimely, death is never far off. Fitzgerald didn’t need a complete novel to show how short Hollywood lives could be. Working from a story outline, trying to keep to a production schedule, he took great care with each emerging chapter, polishing them until they were nearly done. The sketched-in ending -- a plane crash related somehow to a studio power struggle -- had a possible coda: (spoiler) a boy finds Stahr’s briefcase in the wreckage and keeps it. That is: the papers survive the man. Wilson was given the manuscript by Perkins and lacking any obvious directions consulted both Graham and Kroll Ring to shape the manuscript for publication. One Fitzgerald biographer asserts that he made the work appear more realized than it was. Whether Fitzgerald was confident his old friend, a la Brod, would fashion something from the manuscript is impossible to say. But given Wilson’s stature then as America’s foremost critic (he had just published the magnificent historical study, To the Finland Station), it almost certainly crossed his mind. Three weeks before he died, Fitzgerald wrote Wilson, the last letter in The Crack Up, saying how pleased he was with the new novel, and that its emotional honesty will probably get him in trouble. “I honestly hoped somebody else would write it but nobody seems to be going to.” He closes with a p.s. mentioning he was working under “a horrible paucity of time.” Late in Chapter V, shortly before the manuscript stops, his heart doctor realizes that Stahr “was due to die very soon now. Within six months one could say definitely. What was the use of developing the cardiograms?” Indeed, Fitzgerald was waiting for a visit from his own cardiologist at Sheilah’s apartment near Sunset when the third attack hit. “He will never have a wide public,” Fitzgerald, writing about Kafka the week before he died, was probably thinking the same of himself. However wrong that turned out to be, he absolutely knew what he had with The Great Gatsby and The Last Tycoon: “two books writers will never be able to forget.” That same day he also wrote Zelda to say he was getting better; that he needed rest; that it was odd how, alone of all the body’s organs, the heart was able to repair itself. Image: Wikipedia

The Art of the Final Sentence

This completes a series of essays on craft that I privately refer to as “The Art of…: The Series.” (You can see why the name has remained private.) Previous entries include Epigraphs, the Opening Sentence, Close Writing, and Chapters. (Spoilers, spoilers, blah, blah, blah.) There are fewer famous closing lines than there are opening ones, probably because we start reading more books than we finish, i.e., the options are sparser. Not to mention how much context is sometimes required to understand the meaning (literal and figurative) of a book’s ending. You can’t just say: Hey, check this out: “He loved Big Brother.” To those unfamiliar with George Orwell’s 1984, what the hell would this mean? Some man is fan of reality television? Also, there is less pressure on a final line, isn’t there? If you’ve managed to keep a reader’s attention until the end, then you’ve already accomplished a great deal. In other words, the success of a book doesn’t exactly hinge on the quality of the last sentence, whereas an opening must rivet, pull, hook, excite, invite. The more well-known closers tend to be lyrical passages of direct conclusion. A Tale of Two Cities features the oft-cited, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known,” and The Great Gatsby's equally as referenced (most recently in the title of Maureen Corrigan’s book on Gatsby, And So We Read On), “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Other notable finishers spell out the meaning of the title, as in John Irving’s The World According to Garp, which ends with Garp’s daughter, considering her father: “In the world according to her father, Jenny Garp knew, we must have energy. Her famous grandmother, Jenny Fields, once thought of us as Externals, Vital Organs, Absentees, and Goners. But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” Or in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which ends, “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky--seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” And finally, Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude (one of the few, like Gatsby, to have a famous opening and closing): Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth. My personal favorite among the famous closers is Ernest Hemingway’s “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” from The Sun Also Rises. This line not only aptly summarizes the themes of the novel but also stands as a wonderfully evocative statement on life in general -- the beauty of our imagination is rarely matched by the ugliness of reality. Most great last lines are not extractable or isolatable quotations; as I said, they require context. And sometimes their beauty comes more from what’s literally being described than the efficacy of the language. The ending of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence isn’t a poetic line in and of itself. Its power comes from the scene it ends. Newland Archer, older, now a widower, has the chance to see Madame Olenska again, she being the woman, as Newland’s son has it, “you’d have chucked everything for: only you didn’t.” When they go to meet her, Newland opts to sit outside the hotel instead, saying, “perhaps I shall follow you.” He stares at the balcony he knows to be Olenska’s, hoping to catch a glimpse. But he only sees the servant close the shutters. Then: “At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.” The tragedy in this line is inextricably linked to the scene it concludes. Wharton’s success lies in right ending as much as the words that describe it. Leo Tolstoy’s ender in The Death of Ivan Ilych is also simple but masterful: “He drew in a breath, broke off in the middle of it, stretched himself out, and died.” This short novel deals with Ilych’s life in a plain style, refusing to make death abstract, and the ending emphasizes that. Death is a stark fact, one Ilych was not prepared for, and, unfortunately, it happens as easily and as unceremoniously as Tolstoy’s final sentence. Philip Roth, riffing on Ivan Ilych for his short parable Everyman, takes his unnamed protagonist through all the sicknesses of his life, using the close-calls of death as a way to narrate a life, for what is life, after all, than the continual resistance to death? His everyman perishes thusly: “He went under feeling far from felled, anything but doomed, eager yet again to be fulfilled, but nonetheless, he never woke up. Cardiac arrest. He was no more, freed from being, entering into nowhere without even knowing. Just as he’d feared from the start.” Roth is particularly good as final lines (as well as opening ones). American Pastoral, after delicately and intricately describing how the Swede’s family life literally explodes from the blast of his Patty Hearst-like daughter, ends with distinctly American questions: “And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?” But maybe my favorite Roth ender comes from, appropriately, his final novel. Nemesis tells the story of a Polio outbreak in New Jersey in 1944. Bucky Cantor, a well-intentioned weightlifter and javelin-thrower, tries valiantly to help his community as the epidemic ravages its citizens. Eventually Bucky flees New Jersey for Indian Hill, a summer camp where his girlfriend Marcia’s a counselor. The fresh air promises health, a safe haven, but soon one of the counselors gets sick, and Bucky comes to believe that he is the carrier who introduced polio to the camp. When he, too, falls ill and has to be hospitalized, he ends things with Marcia, his love, because, “I owed her her freedom...and I gave it to her. I didn’t want the girl to feel stuck with me. I didn’t want to ruin her life. She hadn’t fallen in love with a cripple, and she shouldn’t be stuck with one.” Years later, a former student of Bucky’s from New Jersey runs into him. The sight of the former weightlifter with a “withered left arm and a useless left hand,” wearing a “full leg brace beneath his trousers,” is shocking, but even more so is his deep-seated bitterness. “God killed my mother in childbirth,” he says, “God gave me a thief for a father. In my early twenties, God gave me polio that I in turn gave to at least a dozen kids, probably more…How bitter should I be? You tell me.” The books ends with the former student’s vivid recollection of Bucky at his peak, when the kids would watch him throw his javelin: He threw the javelin repeatedly that afternoon, each throw smooth and powerful, each throw accompanied by that resounding mingling of a shout and a grunt, and each, to our delight, landing several yards farther down the field than the last. Running with the javelin aloft, stretching his throwing arm back behind his body, bringing the throwing arm through to release the javelin high over his shoulder -- and releasing it then like an explosion -- he seemed to us invincible. Roth’s last group of short novels (Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling and Nemesis, collectively referred to as Nemeses) deal with this theme, that of the delicacy and vulnerability of us all, how, despite our intentions, regardless of our ethics or our choices, life can destroy you whenever it wants, and for whatever reason. Toni Morrison can also open and close a book with power. Her Song of Solomon takes the hero, Milkman, to the town of Shalimar in search of gold. Milkman’s best friend, Guitar, tries to kill him but instead kills Pilate, Milkman’s mystical sister. After singing to her as she dies, Milkman realizes “why he loved her so. Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly.” The promise (and failure) of human flight runs throughout Song of Solomon, beginning with its inimitable opening line: “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.” Whereas this man’s promise proves to be nothing more than a boast, Pilate flies in the truer, more significant sense. Milkman goes after Guitar after Pilate dies, and the novel concludes both ambiguously and conclusively: Milkman stopped waving and narrowed his eyes. He could just make out Guitar’s head and shoulders in the dark. “You want my life?” Milkman was not shouting now. “You need it? Here.” Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees -- he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up the ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it. It is uncertain as to which man emerges victorious, but the real meaning here is in Milkman’s realization about the air. Flying is impossible for a person to do literally, and Milkman finally sees this– -- his stubborn pride is released as he lets himself be guided by the “air,” or, more aptly, the right choice. Morrison’s books nearly always hint at magical realism, and sometimes they deliver it, but usually the magic stays where it lives, in the imagination, and her characters must find other ways to save themselves. Notice in these last few examples how neatly their authors are able to unify the themes and the plots of the books into a distilled moment. Tolstoy’s frank style reinforces the matter-of-factness of death, Roth’s childhood memory evokes the naïve belief in human power, and Morrison’s “riding the air” answers a question set up by the first line. The skill here is in giving the sense of a cohesive whole, of arriving at a place that is both surprising and inevitable. The surprise comes as you read it; the feeling of inevitability comes after you’ve considered the ending in the context of the entire narrative. Ivan Ilych is coldly pronounced dead on page one, but his death doesn’t happen in a scene until the finale, where we now feel empathy. Roth reminds us of Bucky’s strength in his youth, a fact made poignant the sight of him as an older, decrepit adult. A man promises to fly who can’t, and then Milkman finds his own way of doing it. Other than bringing a character to a pivotal point, or circling back to the beginning, and besides lyricism that summarizes the novel’s point of view, what are other ways novelists end their books in a satisfactory manner? Some choose to simply not end their novels at all. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has a circular structure in which the last sentence (which ends mid-sentence) loops back to complete the opening one (which begins mid-sentence). But since I haven’t read that book nor do I believe that I could rightfully analyze it, I’ll stick here with books within my intellectual capabilities. (Joyce has the distinct honor of having not one but three famous endings: Finnegans Wake, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses, and the perfect final sentence of his story “The Dead.”) Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction also starts and concludes in medias sententia. Ellis’s aim, rather than suggesting circularity, is to suggest that we as readers have only momentarily joined a narrative that has been going on long before and will continue long after. Plus, his college-age characters are manic, erratic, and uncertain of everything. Ellis’s choice to cut them off is appropriate: they would have continued forever had he not done so. David Foster Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, (published a month before his 25th birthday) is a playful, extended riff on Wittgensteinian theories of language. (This is, mind, a novel in which a talking cockatiel named Vlad the Impaler ends up proselytizing on a Christian television network.) The final line is actually dialogue, spoken by Rick Vigorous, the protagonist Lenore’s boss and lover: “You can trust me,” R.V. says, watching her hand. “I’m a man of my”. For a narrative focused on language (most notably Ludwig Wittgenstein’s assertion that philosophical problems arise because of confusions of language stemming from false assumptions about how language works) to end by omitting the word ‘word’ -- which is doubly meaningful as here the term denotes trust, an oath, the kind of certainty the book spends much energy making sure we don’t forget is linguistically suspect if not impossible -- may seem too clever by half, but by the time a reader reaches this point, no other ending would seem appropriate (certainly not as pointed). Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything Is Illuminated ends with a similar excision, though aimed at an entirely different purpose. The “guileless,” Thesaurus-happy Alexander Perchov -- truly one of the most lovable characters in recent fiction -- guides Jonathan Safran Foer through their trip to Trachimbrod in search of the woman who saved Foer’s grandfather from the Nazis. Alexander’s grandfather accompanies as driver (though he claims blindness), and it soon becomes apparent he has his own ghosts to search for in their Ukrainian journey. Grandfather, it turns out, had betrayed his best friend Hershel to the Nazis (revealed, in the novel, in a heartbreaking, punctuation-less section), and in the end he writes a letter to Jonathan and Alexander (also called Sasha) to explain his decision to take his own life. The letter ends as Grandfather does: I am writing this in the luminescence of the television, and I am so sorry if this is now difficult to read, Sasha, but my hand is shaking so much, and it is not out of weakness that I will go to the bath when I am sure that you are asleep, and it is not because I cannot endure. Do you understand? I am complete with happiness, and it is what I must do, and I will do it. Do you understand me? I will walk without noise, and I will open the door in darkness, and I will Like Wallace’s ending, this line is an interrupted promise, but here it is meaningfully sincere and incomplete for another reason entirely. I will is a strong subject-verb phrase, and by leaving it unfinished, Foer ends his book with nearly limitless optimism– -- quite a feat considering it comes in a suicide note. I am aware, as in all of these essays, that I haven’t said anything new or insightful on the subject of endings in general. Let me attempt something now. Unlike almost all other elements of fiction, the final lines do not participate in the project of keeping a reader reading. This may appear to grant a writer complete freedom, like the final two years of a two-term presidency -- the absence of an impending re-election ostensibly allows for sweeping, public-opinion-be-damned initiatives. But in fact the last moments of a novel are its most delicate and important. If opening lines can be likened to a carnival booth runner’s shouts to passing fair-goers, the final lines are more than the prize of the game. Think about how much a reader gives a novelist -- they agree to spend thousands of words listening and absorbing the novelist’s story. They are granting the novelist the rare chance to take them, via hundreds of pages, to a precise point, an incredibly particular moment that only fiction with all its complexity and length can reach. With enough trust, a novelist can take us anywhere, and the tools of narrative allow for remarkable specificity -- the exact moment a marriage fails or the aftermath of a war for one family or a man’s tragic death that his whole life has seemed to point to. For writers, the last sentences aren’t about reader responsibility at all -- it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to stop worrying about what comes next, because nothing does. No more keeping the reader interested, no more wariness over giving the game away. This is the game. This is the best time for a writer to get real, to depict reality as they see it, without compromises, without fear. The reader has stuck with you -- give them something true, something honest and unquestionably yours. Take them from the promise of the opening line to those hyper-specific moments in life that take tens of thousands of words to set up -- take them, as Junot Diaz did, to the beauty! The beauty! See? It’s easy. Now everybody -- See Also: The End of the End: Writers on Last Lines Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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