Knowing the End from the Beginning

The other day, I was listening to an interview on National Public Radio with Emma Donoghue, the author of Room. It’s a novel about a five-year-old whose entire life has been spent with his mother in a small room where his mother –a victim of kidnapping — has been kept since before he was conceived. The book sounds horrifying, fascinating, and tremendously well done.

I don’t know how the story ends. The interviewer was very careful not to give away anything about that. The reviews I looked up online after getting home were equally circumspect.

This is all quite admirable for those of you who think a book shouldn’t be ruined by knowing the ending beforehand. But I’m here to tell you that unless and until I know how that book ends, I won’t buy it. And I won’t start reading it.

Most of you will doubtless be horrified by this. To which I respond: Get over it. I’m a longtime reader, with a graduate degree in literature (if that means anything). My reading experience is just as legitimate as yours. I’m not asking you to read this way, but I’m not going to apologize for the way I process texts. Anyone who wants me to read his/her/its story will simply have to deal with that.

The question of just why I read this way has to do, I think, with how strongly I identify with the characters in the fiction I’m reading. I literally feel what they’re feeling — or what they ought to be feeling, in cases such as those of stupid teenagers who ought to feel more embarrassed than they do about their own idiotic actions. (This is one reason, by the way, that I shall never watch a Mister Bean movie.) This makes reading a very intense experience for me. It also means I have to be pretty careful about decisions about just what I’m going to read. Knowing what’s coming in a story helps me do that.

It’s not just a matter of eliminating stories that end badly. Very often when I flip ahead to find out the end of an intense story, even if the news isn’t good for the main character, I’ll keep on going. Knowing what’s coming helps me to get a grip on myself emotionally. It allows me to continue — though there are also times when, knowing where the story is going, I’ll decide it’s not worth my time. That’s my prerogative.

The other thing you have to understand is that for me, knowing the ending in advance doesn’t spoil a story. Pretty much any story that I like, I reread. Usually I like it better the second time around. Knowing what’s going to happen, I don’t have to race through, but can appreciate the journey. It’s like a first-time conversation with the person who’s going to become your best friend. You may click initially, but things get much better over time. First impressions are lasting impressions only if they’re so negative that you don’t bother to collect any later impressions further down the road. A good book is much like a good friend in that respect — for me at least.

The one exception I try to make is when I’m reading something to give revision comments to the writer. In those cases, I try to stick to a strictly linear reading, so that the writer will have the benefit of my impressions and misconceptions, uncontaminated by knowledge of what comes later. I’m not honestly sure that’s the best idea, though. Wouldn’t it be better to accurately reflect the kind of reader I really am, rather than imitate someone I’m not? But I try.

#####

God, we’re told, knows the end from the beginning, whether that’s through a kind of mechanical foreknowledge based on his thorough knowledge of the present, or some way of standing outside of time, or something else.

In wanting to know the ending of stories before I get very far in them, it can be supposed that I’m wanting the power of God — something we limited mortals don’t possess in real life. Each of us, after all, must live life as it comes to us. Isn’t it a form of cheating, of escapism, for me to demand something different in my reading experience?

Except that this isn’t the case. God, if you’re a Mormon, is someone you believe has indeed revealed the ending of the drama, though not all the intermediate acts. He tells us how things will end up so that we may trust him along the way.

Which, it occurs to me, really is what I want in my reading. When I read a story, I enter a world whose god — the author — is largely unknown to me. Before I venture into that world, I want to know whether it’s the work of one of those gods who delights in the pain of his or her creation: a god of vengeance, a god of mercy, a god of suffering, a god of indolence, a god of unjust power and cruel immorality. I want to know what kind of experience awaits me. This, it seems to me, isn’t too much to ask.

7 thoughts on “Knowing the End from the Beginning”

  1. Excellent observations, Jonathan. The godlike skills exhibited by a talented writer draw us into the manufactured reality. The need for such skills to produce convincing fiction can be very intimidating–We don’t want to botch our creations. It leaves me in greater awe of one who can juggle “worlds without number” without losing sight of His purpose.

  2. “knowing the ending in advance doesn’t spoil a story”

    Same here. I tend not to read the endings of novels. But with movies, I have no problems reading reviews with spoilers.

  3. Interesting observations on personality.

    My wife freaks out when I watch a movie until I get near to the end and then stop.

    I was relieved when the lit teacher said, “If you’re not going to read the last page or so [full of sex], don’t read the book.” At least I had an excuse not to read.

    Brilliant Mr. Bean… Vacation was wonderful, especially for the synchronicity and serendipity; and understanding what others in the movie were feeling.

    I reread too, but only because I’ve forgotten what I read in the first place. Otherwise, most of the time I won’t.

    I think that is something that all should experience at least a few times in life, either personally or at least through the arts–to know the end, and yet go through it all anyway/ just the same.

    One question: based on the title and the content of this post… how can/ do you live life? 🙂

  4. grego,

    I too am capable of stopping reading a book or watching a program or whatever. If I decide I don’t want to finish something, it generally doesn’t bother me not knowing more.

    You asked: “based on the title and the content of this post”¦ how can/ do you live life? :)”

    My answers:
    a. Backwards, by preference (a la T.H. White’s Merlin)

    When that doesn’t work (usually), I switch to:
    b. With a great deal of grumpiness. 🙂

    Perhaps I’m simply less linear than most people? That could account for some of the things that go wrong in any given day…

    On a more serious note, I think all of us are constantly plotting (in the writerly sense of the word), trying to make sense of our own lives in terms of larger patterns that account for our past and help predict our future. Those expectations are constantly confounded, of course. The difference is that reading a story, I *know* that the characters’ fate is outside of my control, or even my influence. The world of a novel is a Calvinistic, predetermined one, from the reader’s point of view. As a reader, I don’t have meaningful choice, so I settle for foreknowledge.

  5. Jonathan, you are the kind of reader a writer likes to write for! Of course, it’s essential for a writer to know the end from the beginning – otherwise the finished product will probably be a mess. I have it on good authority (from a writer friend who heard it from a published LDS writer) that we as LDS writers don’t have to write much beyond an eighth grade vocabulary because, after all, our audiences aren’t very sophisticated. That may be true if you’re writing for eighth graders, but it shows contempt for the adult LDS reading public. If a lot of LDS writers believe that, we’re in trouble. I think more and more LDS readers are becoming increasingly discriminating, and that’s a serious challenge for LDS writers.

  6. A reader responded to a first chapter I wrote: “I’d read it if it doesn’t end with a double suicide (way too popular in historical romances). I know the lovers finally have their HEA [happily-ever-after] in the afterlife, but just for once, I’d like them to have their HEA in this life.”

    I was perfectly happy to assure her that they get their HEA in this life. I’d put it on the cover, if that helped.

    Classical music, opera, Shakespeare, and in Japan, Kabuki, Noh, and a traditional comic storytelling style known as Rakugo, all work from established repertoires. Other than Cher’s character in Moonstruck, does anybody go to see La Boheme not knowing how it ends?

    The old saying goes: “There are many paths to the top of Mt. Fuji.” The goal never changes and yet people keep on climbing just the same. One thing that a “predictable” genre can do is establish what kind of mountain it is you’re climbing.

    If you don’t know where you’re going, then “getting there” can be mistaken for “being lost.”

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