Paul Kincaid’s review of Sarah Moss’s Cold Earth, at Strange Horizons yesterday, reminds me that I never did get around to posting about it, and that what I wanted to say about it chimes with some other half-thoughts I’ve been having about other recent reads, specifically about endings. For obvious reasons, we don’t talk about endings much; I’m going to try to get around the reasons here by sticking to talk about kinds of endings. Cold Earth first. It’s presented as letters home by the members of an archaeological dig in Greenland, written partly as diary or catharsis, and mostly because they lose contact with the rest of the world, but the last news they heard is that a new virus appears to be developing into a pandemic. Paul reads the book as being about the end of the world, as an exercise in the inevitability of the end of the world, which leads him to feel somewhat frustrated by the final chapter, and even uncertain about the apparent escape it offers: is it real? If so, it seems somewhat consolatory, or avoidant. Is it a dream? If so, it seems a betrayal of the book’s principles. For me, however, Cold Earth isn’t about inevitability so much as it it’s about exactly that uncertainty: is the world ending, or not? Are the characters being haunted, or not? Will they die, or live? In the baldest possible terms: what sort of story is being told here? And so for me, the closing chapter is a clever sort of imperfect cadence; it offers us resolution as a challenge to what we might have wanted, and (if we have decided what story is being told before we got there) what we expected.
Scarlett Thomas’ new book, Our Tragic Universe, plays a similar game more self-consciously. Its protagonist is a young author struggling to write a “real” novel, and meantimes making ends meet (just about) by writing genre fiction and reviewing weird and wonderful non-fiction books for a national newspaper. The first book she’s reading for review in the novel is a sort of new-age take on the Omega Point, the idea that we are probably living in a simulation of the universe at the end of time, which argues that this makes all sorts of things possible. Aha, we think, particularly (and, I am sure, deliberately) if we have read The End of Mr Y, which featured another book that purported to explain the nature of reality and was proved correct, and we sit back and wait for the fantastic to intrude into the story. But Thomas plays with us all the way through, not so much refusing to indulge us as refusing to tell us whether we have been indulged, whether or not certain improbabilities that dot the narrative are magical (or science fictional) in origin. (I have the impression that Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City plays a similar game: has anyone read it?) I have to admit, I admire the bloody-mindedness of Our Tragic Universe, its ability to pre-empty my every response and its refusal to confirm or deny anything, even as I find what I take to be the book’s ultimate argument – that art is a tool to enable us to resist narratives that get imposed on life – to be delivered with just a touch too much satisfaction. But even there I am anticipated, with one character claiming that what gives a story coherence is that it has an argument, or stakes out a position about the world, and that it doesn’t matter so much whether that position is true.
Dexter Palmer’s The Dream of Perpetual Motion, which I’m trying to write a proper review of for elsewhere, seems to me to similarly be about seeking a way to say something authentic in a world where story has been commodified and worn-out (this would be opposed to Elizbeth Hand’s take, that it’s “an elegy for … the passing of the power of the word, written and spoken”, in that ultimately I think it asserts the word’s continued power). Interestingly, compared to Our Tragic Universe, it never holds out any mystery about its ending. We know from the start where the narrator is (in a zeppelin that may or may not be powered by a perpetual motion, flying above a retro-futuristic metropolis), and in broad terms why he has ended up there. The book then records the narrator’s life story, and how it has been shaped by others. This means there are two key differences to Thomas – one, an explicitly fantastic setting, and two, a clearer focus on the process of finding a voice, finding a way to resist narrative – and I think those differences are why the book works better for me. Or, perhaps, not works better – since I think Our Tragic Universe achieves what it sets out to do, in terms of conflating the impulse towards story and the impulse towards the fnatastic – but why I prefer it. Palmer’s novel is no less self-conscious a work, nor any less playful (for certain, somewhat arch values of playful), but it feels perhaps less hesitant, more committed to its argument about the world. Of course, hesitance may also be a part of Thomas’ argument.
And last but not least there’s Patrick Ness’s Monsters of Men, the conclusion of the trilogy started by The Knife of Never Letting Go and continued in The Ask & The Answer. This is a very different book to the other three in some ways, being a headlong narrative that isn’t in the least concerned with its existence as narrative, building towards an ending that we are not necessarily supposed to anticipate in the way that, I’d suggest, we’re asked to anticipate the other three. On the other hand, like every other story it is a narrative that creates expectations and, like Cold Earth – if not to an even greater degree, since there are many more questions to be answered – the process of resolving those expectations is a mixed blessing. Part of me looks at the ending and feels disappointment, feels that it’s more conventional than I might have hoped for from Ness; another part of me looks at it from another angle (having read the three books above) and wonders whether it’s not the simple fact that it is an ending that disappoints. Part of the pleasure of Chaos Walking – a large part, actually – is the suspension of the various narrative possibilities, Ness’ expert manipulation of what the reader knows, and thus what they might expect, which engenders the sense that the outcome is particularly fluid, that many different things could happen. After the last page of Monsters of Men those possibilities have resolved into concrete things that have happened, and I’m not sure there’s any configuration that would have been wholly satisfying. More than that, even, I’m not sure that a wholly satisfying configuration of this type of story is even desirable: even being satisfyingly unconventional is a convention: perhaps there is a boldness in the mix of conventional and unconventional that Ness offers. Alternatively, perhaps I’ve just reached the point where I’ll never enjoy an ending naively again.