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the clamour for closure

i have a real penchant for stories- in books, in movies, in television, anything- that have a well-done open ending. there's something so exquisitely frustrating and inspiring about working your way through something, letting yourself be drawn into its characters, story and world only to be denied a clear resolution at the very end.

one of my favourite books in the world, thomas pynchon's "the crying of lot 49" has [and i don't mean to spoil this for anyone] one of the most outrageous examples of this i've come across. i remember well the look on the face of the first person who i ever convinced to read the book when he got to the end [i was thrilled to be in the room at the time], a sort of bewildered, wounded expression of disbelief, trying to figure out of i'd maliciously ripped some pages out of the back or if that really was how the story ended.

it's a swift and brutal thing and its magic, of course, is that part of our mind is tricked into believing that the story doesn't end, but that we simply lose out access to it. we're left like diane keaton in first two godfather movies, tensely watching as the door is closed in her face, knowing that the drama continues behind it. on the one hand, it's frustrating that we're suddenly left out, having been privy to so much of the story to that point. on the other, it sets our own imaginations free to think of what could have been.

not everyone likes being invited to dream. a few years back, when "the sopranos" ended on a shockingly vague note, the public reaction had me thinking that there were going to be riots, or at the very least that the show's producers were going to have to be put under armed guard until the furor died down. i never even followed "the sopranos" with any kind of regularity, but that closing scene still strikes me as one of the most fiendishly brilliant things ever foisted on a mass audience.

WANT TO KNOW HOW THIS ENDS?



for those who do love these sorts of endings, of course, part of the appeal is the idea that its ambiguity is actually a ruse- that the keys to unraveling the mystery are actually hidden in the story itself, for those who wish to look. for all those who were angered by the "non-ending" of "the sopranos", there were many who came up with their own definitive theories as to why the ending wasn't so loose at all. see here. and here.  and here. and here.

to take another example, one with which i'm more familiar, look at the debate that has surrounded the ending of john carpenter's remake [and i use that term loosely] of "the thing" in the almost thirty years since it was released. in this case, most people have a feeling of what's happening at the end- that strange disappearance and reappearance of childs is indicative of something nefarious, but no one knows. like "the sopranos", the ending has been subject to a forensic-style analysis- witness this exhaustive look at the film's climax [part two- links come courtesy of metafilter] by rob ager.

these arguments can be pretty persuasive, but the ultimate end is that we'll never, ever, ever know unless the writer/ filmmaker tells us. and, given the fascination around these sorts of endings, there's almost no incentive for them to do so.

sometimes, of course, there really are a lot of details hidden in the text and they really do explain what's going on. another favourite book of mine, charles palliser's "the quincunx" is rife with mysteries obliquely explained [who the central character's father is, who his grandfather is, who is narrating the story], but which can easily be missed because the main story does seem to be at least somewhat adequately resolved.

one of the reasons that i find that book so incredibly satisfying is that- and i'll admit i've read it several times- there is a sense of accomplishment in finding a detail that you can link to a larger part of the story. it's those sort of "aha" moments that drive people into the realm of obsession in analysing texts, videos, images, anything they can get their hands on in order to render some sort of cohesion out of the apparent rubble. it's as though, despite the fact that we know that in the real world, events flow freely and meaninglessly into one another, without defined beginnings or endings aside from birth and death, we cannot accept that someone would create a work of fiction that does not come together neatly at the end.

of course, it's also likely that many of us just want to revel in that wonderful feeling of being the person who solves the puzzle, despite the fact that no solution is really likely to end the debate.

for some critics, of course, open endings are the ultimate sign of literary laziness, stopping short of coming up with a "real" resolution. in my own writing, i'll admit that i often employ such endings and while, most of the time, i do know what happens after the text stops, there are examples where i've chosen to leave things open simply because it seems more powerful than pushing the story in one direction or another. i'm not sure if that's a sign that i know when to stop or that i'm comfortable quitting when i feel i've worked myself into a corner.

one thing is for certain,

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