12.06.2012

Forever and Fated: Novels That End Badly

About a week ago, The New Yorker's Page Turner blog featured a post by Joan Acocella that discussed the reasons behind books ending badly. Not sadly or routinely (as deaths and things that might occur at the ends of many books are in fact appropriate and moving and cause you to cry for hours - see: The Musketeer Trilogy) but, as Acocella says, "inartistic—a betrayal of what came before."

Acocella goes on to cite Wuthering Heights, David Copperfield and Huckleberry Finn as perfect examples where a large chunk right at the end of these previously outstanding novels, the authors have chosen to switch gears and tell stories that no one wants to hear (specifically here, the plight of Catherine and Heathcliff's children, a boring marriage, and Huck resuming stupid antics as directed by the comically inappropriate Tom Sawyer).

The two novels I want to talk about today are very different in tone, complexity and literary appeal. But, when boiled down, they're actually pretty similar. And both of them have terrible, awful, no good, very bad endings that, I think, they should be called out on.

The first of these is Pete Hamill's 2002 best-seller Forever.
From the publisher's website:
"From the bestselling author of Snow in August and A Drinking Life comes this magical, epic tale of an extraordinary man who arrives in New York City in 1740 and remains...forever.
From the shores of Ireland, Cormac O'Connor sets out on a fateful journey to avenge the deaths of his parents and honor the code of his ancestors. His quest brings him to the settlement of New York, seething with tensions between English and Irish, whites and blacks, British and "Americans," where he is swept up in a tide of conspiracy and violence. In return for aiding an African shaman who was brought to America in chains, Cormac is given an otherworldly gift: He will live forever -- as long as he never leaves the island of Manhattan.
Cormac comes to know all the buried secrets of Manhattan -- the way it has been shaped by greed, race, and waves of immigration, by the unleashing of enormous human energies, and above all, by hope. 
Through it all, Cormac must fight a force of evil that returns relentlessly in the scions of a single family whose path first crossed his in Ireland. As he searches out these blood enemies, he must watch everyone he touches slip away. And so he seeks the one who can change his fate, the mysterious dark lady who alone can free him from the blessing and the curse of his long life
Drawing on Pete Hamill's bone-deep knowledge of New York City, Forever is his long-awaited masterpiece, a Shakespearean evocation of the mysteries of time and death, sex and love, character and place. It is both an unforgettable drama and a timeless triumph of storytelling."
Sounds pretty good, right? It is. It's a fantastic novel. And I mean novel. It's over 600 pages long. It's dense. It's beautiful. I loved....almost every second of it. Because if there's one thing I love more than a novel that is just plain beautiful, it's one that's impeccably researched and just plain beautiful. And this is a prime example. Until the end.

You see, according to Hamill (I think it's in the interview in the back of the edition I have) he lets us know that he completed his final draft on September 10th, 2001. The next day, the world changed. He spent the next nine days working for the Daily News and requested an extension from his publisher, which was granted, and he spent the next year changing a huge chunk at the end. Because, as he says, you can't have "a New York novel that ha[s] the 1835 fire and the cholera and smallpox epidemics, and not include September 11." And while I agree with that, I have to wonder at Cormac's decision making in a post-9/11 world.

In the very end, he has a choice: he's been on a journey for centuries now, everything has led up to this moment at the very end when he can either follow his loved ones on the path to the afterlife that awaits him, or he can hang out for the next fifty or so years with his baby mama until everyone he knows this century dies and he has to start all over, still never leaving the island of Manhattan, and still never being reunited with his parents. One is a beautiful and cathartic ending, the other is the let-down to let all let-downs down. Guess which one he chooses. Think Juliet waking up and deciding to marry Paris.

And you can bet that those last hundred words or so that totally ruin the entire book were something that Hamill wrote in the original draft. That's the worst part. Even with the re-writes and the terror of 9/11, he always intended to let everyone down.

The other novel I want to talk about is S. G. Browne's 2010 novel Fated.
From the author's website:
Over the past few thousand years, Fabio has come to hate his job. As Fate, he’s in charge of assigning the fortunes and misfortunes that befall most of the human race—the 83% who keep screwing things up. And with the steady rise in population since the first Neanderthal set himself on fire, he can’t exactly take a vacation.
Frustrated with his endless parade of drug addicts and career politicians, it doesn’t help watching Destiny guide her people to Nobel Peace Prizes and Super Bowl MVPs. To make matters worse, he has a five hundred year old feud with Death, and his best friends are Sloth and Gluttony. And worst of all? He’s just fallen in love with a human.
Sara Griffen might be on Destiny’s path, but Fabio keeps bumping into her—by accident at first, and then on purpose. Getting involved with her breaks Rule #1, and about ten others, setting off some cosmic-sized repercussions that could strip him of his immortality–or lead to a fate worse than death.
I almost don't want to even talk about this book. That's how much of a disappointment it was. The first 95% of it was great. And then Browne pulled what the Buffy fan in me would like to call an IWRY

Fabio has completely screwed up. Jerry (God) decrees that Fabio will no longer be immortal. Fabio can't bring himself to tell Sara what's about to happen. Next day, Sara remembers nothing: not who he is, not what he was, not what they were to each other. The ensuing chapter is unfortunate and pretty pathetic. Fabio, now as a mortal, ruins his human life, makes Sara hate him, and then kills himself. All so that Browne can have him become, wait for it, the next Messiah. 

And wait, it gets worse, Sara is the mother of the Messiah. So when Fabio, after he kills himself, regains consciousness within the womb, he's inside the love of his life. In the grossest way possible. Sure, when he's "born" again, he will lose all his memories and will have no consciousness of having ruined everything with Sara, etc. But...seriously? This is how you want to end this book? 

It was a good book. It was enjoyable. It had some annoying stylistic problems, but I glossed over every single one of them because I was enjoying myself. But then this happened. Also, I was cool with the weird religious implications of that first 95% of the novel. And then it got a little too preachy right there at the end, losing all secular appeal.

Hamill's offense was greater. Clearly, this was the ending he'd always intended and, clearly, it was very rude for him to make us sit through over 600 pages of gorgeousness just to do that. But Browne's is more annoying, possibly because the book isn't as good and I was hoping the end would redeem itself a little. Instead it's just got a creep factor of 9 and a boring factor of 11. Both endings were pre-meditated and, unlike Wuthering Heights and David Copperfield where I think the authors kind of felt like they had to keep writing just so that they could eventually find the ending, they make the stories feel kind of cheap. 

Alternately, there is Don Winslow's Savages which got a Hollywood treatment this summer. The novel itself isn't much. Winslow writes like a screenwriter for the most part and he keeps both the dialogue 
and the prose pretty sparse. There's not a whole lot in the way of character development. But it's an insanely quick read if you get the chance. It's not Forever in its size or density or beauty, but the ending is such a great piece on its own, and it's so gorgeously written. It's the kind of ending that I would have wanted Forever to have. It's the kind of ending that Fated should have had. And if Don Winslow could have cobbled that together just for the end of his book, Pete Hamill and S. G. Browne have absolutely no excuse. 

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