The Year in Absent Endings

The things we hope for in life—stability, moments of unexpected joy and recognition, the creation of a kind of legacy—are the same things many of us look for in what we read, and in what we write.

Tobias Carroll writes fiction and nonfiction. He is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, and his writing has recently appeared in Tin House...

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To borrow a term from the video game side of the aisle, we live in an open world where we can read books set in similarly open worlds. Maybe this is stating the obvious, but it feels as if it’s crept up on us all, reaching some sort of peak this year. At very least, it feels as if it’s crept up on me, though there’s certainly precedent for it: the works that first got me interested in reading were largely science fiction and fantasy, and most of them existed on fictional continua to which their authors returned again and again. Some of this was done by design from the start—right about here is where I should mention that I read a whole lot of Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels during my formative years, which was probably the apex for me as far a number of novels unfolding within a single setting is concerned. I was also reading a lot of superhero comics at the time, so the notion of a setting that could be returned to again and again felt natural to me. A lot of detective fiction followed a similar course: whether you were looking at Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, or Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, there was a shared setting, and a shared sense of history.

Not that this is a phenomenon solely confined to those ambiguous borders marking out the land of “genre fiction.” William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County has become a kind of shorthand for a shared literary universe; writers giving a protagonist or central character of one novel a brief appearance in another is nothing new. Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City and Dissident Gardens are novels about New York City written in very different tones, but Perkus Tooth, the rock critic at the center of the former, is referenced in passing in the latter. A mysterious child, possibly of supernatural origin, appears in Chris Adrian’s Gob’s Grief and The Children’s Hospital; it’s unclear if the child is intended to be the same one or if he’s there in a more archetypal role, but given the apocalyptic fate that befalls the world in The Children’s Hospital, it makes for an interesting read either way. The novels of Javier Mariás, too, abound with the same supporting characters; there was a point in his latest, The Infatuations, when I realized a minor character in that narrative was also the protagonist of his Bad Nature or, With Elvis in Mexico, and it served as a moment of unexpected delight.

Sometimes these moments of recognition, of an awareness of a larger world, can be refreshing. But with that realization can come drawbacks as well. Last year, in interviews surrounding the release of The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell made it clear that with this novel, he was making more explicit the connections between his earlier works, pushing them all into a larger narrative involving clashes between rival groups of immortals. (Short version: one group, the Horologists, reincarnates in new bodies again and again, while the Anchorites prolong their lifespan via a kind of psychic vampirism.) On the one hand, it’s a bold move, drawing together works as disparate as the realist coming-of-age story told in Black Swan Green and the more stylized historical narrative of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Mitchell’s latest, the short novel Slade House, is a kind of haunted house narrative, albeit one infused with the cosmology he’s introduced, potentially to the point of confusing new readers. Mitchell is never boring, and there are plenty of memorably nightmarish moments to be found throughout the book—the way the house’s geography shifts as one character tries to escape it, as well as the way that another’s adolescent torments suffuse the place. At the same time, a reader familiar with The Bone Clocks will note that this story occurs on a much more micro level, as opposed to that earlier novel’s glimpses of something far larger; this is one battle, while the The Bone Clocks gives us a sense of the war.

There’s an allure that comes from reading stories that gradually comes to resemble real life in its intricacies, randomness, and interconnectedness. Perhaps we’re seeking our own reflection in these—an endless storyline for us and those we love.

At times, it’s reminiscent of the way Stephen King, in the 1990s, began working references to his Dark Tower series into his other books—Hearts in Atlantis and Insomnia both come to mind. There are plenty of similarities between the two: both King and Mitchell are writers who both enjoy literary craft while retaining a penchant for pulp thrills. If one was to compare the extensive, expansive fictional cosmologies either has created over the course of many books to, say, the Marvel or DC Universes populated by innumerable superheroes, I suspect neither would shy away from the comparison. At the same time, a story told by a single author comes loaded with the expectation that it will, in fact, end somewhere. A shared universe—or even a character in that shared universe—might never come to a conclusion. Sometimes, that’s reassuring; sometimes, it’s not.


An ending that fails to deliver on all counts is generally easier to forgive than other literary flaws. Sometimes endings can be vague, or overly abrupt, or simplistic. They can ignore established plotlines; they can underestimate characters or give them unsatisfying payoffs. I’ve recommended numerous books with a caveat along the lines of, “Well, the ending isn’t perfect.” There are far fewer books that I’ve handed over to a friend and said, “The opening’s not great, but once you get through that…” Maybe it’s because the narratives of our own lives rarely have perfect endings; we can certainly be forgiving of a novel that shares that quality with us.

It might simply be, however, that we’re drawn to the contradiction. Stories can last for centuries, if not longer, but specific works rarely do. There’s an allure that comes from reading a story (or series of stories) that gradually comes to resemble real life in its intricacies, randomness, and interconnectedness. Whether it’s work that follows a detective over decades, or thousands of pages dedicated to more ordinary lives, there’s a clear appeal. (Consider the international popularity of recent multi-volume works by both Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard, which apply realism to a grand and modest scale.) Perhaps we’re seeking our own reflection in these—an endless storyline for us and those we love.

There’s an inherent tension in the way realism shows us a version of our own world and the way that pulp fiction’s protagonists remain ageless. I’ve been thinking a lot about the way that different styles of narratives collide in Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day—the way the un-aging Chums of Chance go on adventures even as the rest of the novel’s characters are bogged down in concerns that are no less fraught with peril, but much more grounded in the clash between freedom and authoritarianism that characterizes much of recent history. That collision between pulp stylization and more realistic concerns can take interesting forms. The most recent season of that most inherently open-ended of science fiction narratives, Doctor Who, had its central character opine on the nature of applying a pre-formed narrative to our own lives. In the penultimate episode of the latest season, he mused, “There are two events in everybody’s life that nobody remembers”—specifically, birth and death.

Storytelling and mortality are closely woven together. In Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, there’s an image conjured by its protagonist as he realizes that with the death of the old man who had told him innumerable stories of fantastical occurrences, all of the characters populating those stories would cease to exist. It includes an image that remains as evocative for me as now as it was when I first encountered it decades ago: “And yesterday afternoon, at Colonel Freeleigh’s house, a herd of buffalo-bison as big as all Green Town, Illinois, went off the cliff into nothing at all.”

The things that many of us hope for in life—stability, moments of unexpected joy and recognition, the creation of a kind of legacy—are the same things many of us look for in what we read, and in what we write. Whether those will endure a century or more into our future is something we probably won’t ever know. Thankfully, it doesn’t stop us from reading those stories, or from writing them.


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