Is It Over? Story Endings

No Country for Old Men - Tommy Lee Jones

Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men

Writer Toby Wallis has written a thoughtful essay in Glimmer Train on story endings. He centers a lot of his argument on Cormac McCarthy’s chilling novel, No Country for Old Men, in which, as he says “the climax that the story appears to be building towards just doesn’t happen.” It (like the terrific movie made from it) may make audiences feel left hanging, and incomplete, at least until further reflection. One thing to consider is, whose story is it? The killer’s or the sheriff’s? Whether the ending satisfies depends in part on the answer to that question.

As Wallis says, “At first I was disappointed . . . like the rug had been whipped out from under me. Two hours later, I loved it.” Perhaps we’ve been led by fiction—and movies and especially television—to believe all loose ends must be, can be tidied up, there is an answer to all questions, the broken can be made whole or at least set on the path to mending. But that’s not how it is in real life, is it? We must all deal with ambiguity, incompletion, unravelings not to be reknitted. As troubling as an ending as McCarthy’s is, worse, may be the ending where you feel the author thought, “Holy crap! I’ve got to wind this up.” And does.

McCarthy’s approach leaves us pondering what happens next? Our curiosity about the story and its protagonists is not satisfied, it continues to tickle our imaginations, to stay with us at some level. Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You also ends ambiguously. She says readers are very firm in their conviction about what happened by the end, based on the evidence they gleaned in the novel. Yet their interpretations vary widely.

Genre fiction—and here I’ll speak of the genres I know best, crime novels and thrillers—approach endings differently. Thrillers generally adhere to the convention of restoring order to the world, so a tidy post-carnage ending is expected. Many crime novels are not so black and white. They leave room for doubt. Often they are critical of the status quo (corruption in city hall, incompetent police leadership, media on the take, etc.), so why return to it? A police detective may be able to solve a murder, but darker societal forces may be behind it. “That’s Chinatown.”

Outside of genre, in literary novels, Wallis says “stories are at their very best when they ask questions . . . at their didactic worst when they presume to answer them.” At least, when they presume to answer every last one of them. When I look back over the literary fiction of last year that I enjoyed most—Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Lily King’s Euphoria, Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, for example—every one of them leaves space for readers to speculate, to use their own imaginations, to engage with the author in the creative process.


Perseids, meteor shower, night

(photo: David Kingham, creative commons license)

By Neal Stephenson – All my book-reviewing predelictions are about to be revealed, when I say this is exactly a kind of book I like best! Even readers who ordinarily don’t gravitate to their book store’s science fiction section because of a severe allergy to tired genre tropes—aliens, ray-guns, and domineering robots—cardboard characters, and future visions that strain believability might like this one. It’s science, all right, but it’s all about human beings and their behavior when really put to the test. Why that is, in Stephenson’s own words.

The novel’s premise is that something (we never know what, and it doesn’t matter) penetrates the moon “like a bullet through an apple” and causes it to explode mostly into seven large and innumerable smaller pieces. Watching the fragments of the moon clank about in space becomes an interesting phenomenon until astronomer and science popularizer Dubois Harris—clearly modeled on Neil deGrasse Tyson—stops wondering about the cause of the breakup and starts worrying about its effects. Scientists around the globe quickly agree with his conclusions: the moon’s fragments—bolides—will keep banging into each other making smaller and smaller pieces whose numbers will rise exponentially.

Eventually (in about two years), enough shattered fragments will begin entering the Earth’s atmosphere to create a cloud of debris that will spread out and, as Harris explains to U.S. President Julia Flaherty, “we are going to witness an event that I am calling the White Sky.” A day or two later would begin the next phase, “the Hard Rain,” as a rapidly increasing number of fragments enter the Earth’s atmosphere and their fiery trails “merge into a dome of fire that will set aflame anything that can see it. The entire surface of the Earth is going to be sterilized. Glaciers will boil.” How long will the Hard Rain last? Harris estimates “Somewhere between five thousand and ten thousand years.”

The only hope for human survival is to gear up the International Space Station (“Izzy”) to receive many more residents and, somehow, survive long-term, growing plants for food and oxygen, and mining asteroids and even the remaining chunks of the moon for materials. But there’s no way Izzy can take on several billion or even several hundred thousand souls, and a difficult selection process will be required. International politics must be set aside and every creative mind and resource focused on the survival of a few. With Doomsday approaching, technological development must move light-years faster than previously believed possible—or safe. Yet the meat of the book is the mechanics of the human psyche when subjected to such an extreme scenario. Inevitably, some readers will find the balance between mind and emotion not to their taste, and this may not be their kind of book.

There’s a lot of science and engineering here, but it’s wrapped in such an exciting adventure tale, and presented so clearly and plausibly, that I never lost interest for a moment. The 860 [!] pages fly by, faster than you can say Bolide Fragmentation Rate. In fact, there was so much there that a few loose ends escaped me—like, what happened to the mission to Mars? I don’t believe it had more than a passing reference. What happened to the rings Earth was supposed to acquire after the Hard Rain? These are hardly worth a quibble, though, amid all this amazing content.

As Jason Sheehan said in his review of Seveneves for NPR, “The experience of reading a modern Stephenson novel is like going out drinking with 20 or 30 of the smartest people on earth.”

*****Against a Darkening Sky

great horned owl

Wilona’s spirit-guide (photo: SearchNet Media, Creative Commons license)

By Lauren B. Davis – I’ve been looking forward to this book ever since I knew it was coming (Lauren is my writing teacher), because it’s such a departure from her novels with contemporary settings. Davis is a distinguished Canadian author, and I wanted to see how she’d conjure and portray events of 1300 years ago. Now I know. Masterfully.

626 A.D. is a restless time in the medieval Anglian kingdom of Northumbria (now northern England and southeast Scotland). The traditional polytheistic world of augury and healers is about to be displaced by the sweep of Christianity, and the king is constantly threatened by a more powerful rival from the Midlands. These large currents also wash over the small village of Ad Gelfin, where the novel is set.

In the middle of this maelstrom are the traditional spell women, the seithkona—Touilt and her apprentice Wilona—powerful, vulnerable. They use medicinal herbs and tinctures, pray to the pagan gods, and are the closest to healers the community has. The beliefs they espouse are part and parcel of every aspect of daily life and involve the animals and spirits inherent to their place.

When Christianity comes to their small village in great pomp, with it straggles a young monk, Egan. His faith is strong, but in many ways he’s a misfit, most particularly because he sees good in the seithkona, while others simply want to destroy them. Whether the two young people, Egan and Wilona, can find their life paths in increasingly harsh circumstances is the plot of the book, whereas its many meanings—about the persistence of faith, about the quest for dignity and belonging—are universal.

Davis’s enormous accomplishment is in creating a world for Wilona, Touilt, Egan, and a compelling array of secondary characters that is consistent, believable, and true. She’s described the several shelves of reading she did in order to learn enough about that period to write about it authentically, and the care of her research had paid off for her readers. Wilona is especially compelling as a translator and defender of the pagan belief system, grounded in nature and the world around them. Confronting Christianity, which depends on extrinsic religious authority, changes the game utterly. It’s top-down versus bottom-up wisdom.

Pulitzer-Prize winning author Robert Olen Butler says Davis “brilliantly achieves the ideal for a dark, historical fantasy: period and milieu seem utterly inextricable from character and theme.” Those are its remarkable literary qualities; but from the reader’s perspective, it’s also a fascinating immersive adventure!

Read more about Lauren and her work.

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Michael Keaton, Birdman

Michael Keaton in “Birdman”

Given this movie’s underlying premise, I should say up-front that I have a love-not-love relationship with it. Yes, the acting is terrific. Given a script with substance, Michael Keaton, Ed Norton (truly amazing), and Emma Stone all received Oscar nods. I’m also big fan of Amy Ryan, who plays Keaton’s wife in one of her trademark low-key performances, of the kind she perfected in The Wire. The story itself, however, of a middle-aged man’s struggle to find himself amidst the debris of his messy family affairs and dwindling career is, for me, less interesting. (Trailer here)

In telling it, Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu pays homage to magical realism of the South American kind (an armful of calla lilies appears on a monument somewhere to Gabriel García Márquez at every showing of this movie). What appears to be happening on the screen—Michael Keaton levitating in the lotus position or, yes, flying—can be accepted on either a literal or a metaphorical basis, or both, depending on the viewer’s taste and tolerance.

In the story, Keaton is a Hollywood has-been (a former superhero called Birdman) tackling Broadway for the first time, directing and starring in a production of the Raymond Carver short story, “What we talk about when we talk about love.” The play is in rehearsal, and whether it will be successful is a toss-up. It looks unlikely. Meanwhile, Birdman himself keeps appearing like a nudgy pal, alternately flattering and browbeating Keaton and trying to lure him back into the gloriously popular action movies of his youth.

The Carver story recounts an alcohol-soaked evening when two couples try to sort out what love is, a question that has baffled sober people from time immemorial. Because of his own extreme vision of love, the ex-husband of one of the characters shot himself but “bungled it,” says the play. Later, he died. This might be a clue to the movie’s unwinding or not, because the extent to which the play-in-production is supposed to illuminate the movie is deliberately ambiguous. (I didn’t understand the subtitle, either, as it seemed to me that the characters were all too knowing.)

Numerous possible explanations (waking dreams, fevered thoughts, daydreams) could explain some of the action—especially the Michael Keaton character’s flying—which if you’re not overly hung up on trying to explain it rationally is thrilling. This is a movie that you have to decide to “just go with it” or face frustration. But the acting—and the bird costume!—is worth the price of admission. Liked the drumming. Rotten tomatoes critics rating 92%; audiences 84%.

Map Out Your Holiday Gifts

map, Paris

(photo: author)

OK, Santas’ helpers, if someone on your list loves New York, loves maps, loves travel, or just loves to get down with the details, that person might enjoy this wildly popular book of personal maps: Mapping Manhattan: A Love (and Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers, by Becky Cooper, illustrated by Bonnie Briant, with an introduction by Adam Gopnik. Pointing to this book as a bellwether, The Guardian says hand-drawn maps are in. So much so, their creators even have their own association. “All maps tell stories,” Cooper says, and proves it with the creative contributions in this very book.

Alternatively, The Guardian story says Wellingtons Travel spent three years creating a map of modern London full of hand-drawn charm, using the 1800s style that shows individual trees and buildings. The photograph accompanying this article is similar to the Wellingtons approach, but it’s a portion of a map of Paris from a favorite poster of mine that’s so realistic, I’m sure I can pick out that little hotel I stayed at near L’Etoile.

Many people have participated in Cooper’s Mapping Manhattan project, contributing their own unique memory portraits, like the map of “My Lost Gloves.” (That one is available as a print from Uncommon Goods, which has an array of intriguing map gift ideas, including the “Single Malts of Scotland” or “Great Wines of France” tasting maps—bases for a couple of good tours, there.) Contribute to the collective mental map of the city by downloading a blank map of Manhattan on which to show the places where you took your own favorite bites out of the Big Apple. Download another and stick it in your love’s Christmas stocking.

Keep Your Edge – 33 ways

notebook, list, diary


These lists of how to stay creative keep coming around, and they’re always worth a glance. Staying fresh in our own world is important, no matter what world that is. “Make lists, carry a notebook everywhere, write your ideas down”—those suggestions are all of a piece, and I do that. Of course, later the urgent items I scribbled don’t always make sense.

“Go somewhere new, listen to new music, watch foreign films”—those suggestions are different ways of saying “Break out of your routine.” I could do that by following suggestion #31—“Clean your workspace,” which, if I did would probably turn up some of those mystery notes. #29, “Stop trying to be someone else’s perfect,” reminds me of the Steve Jobs admonition pasted above my computer: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

Don’t quite know what to think of “be otherworldly.” That’s the kind of obscure directive I might write myself. For this weekend, just “Do more of what makes you happy!” (#25).

Creativity and the Brain

brain, creativity

fMRI brain images (photo: en.wikipedia)

Lots of articles about creativity in the current issue of The Atlantic, including a fascinating long report by neuroscientist and psychiatrist Nancy Andreasen who studies the origins of creativity in the brain and its association with mental illness. She started out in the 1960’s studying people involved with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Among them was Kurt Vonnegut, who had a multigenerational family history of mental disorders and suffered from depression. (Moving interviews with Vonnegut’s son Mark were included in PBS News Hour’s coverage of Andreasen’s research.) Indeed, for many of the writers she studied, “mental illness and creativity went hand in hand.” Suicide was not uncommon. We think Hemingway, Plath, now Williams. Philip Seymour Hoffman was also far down that self-destructive path.

Andreasen began her academic career clutching a doctorate in literature, taught in the University of Iowa’s English Department, and published a book about the poet John Donne. But she chose to return to school in the sciences, hoping that study of the brain would lead her to understand why authors she admired had gone off the rails—and maybe even to help future writers.

She’s worked on two vital questions: “What differences in nature and nurture can explain why some people suffer from mental illness and some do not? And why are so many of the world’s most creative minds among the most afflicted?” As in many areas of neuroscience, the development of scanning technology, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has enabled her to watch the brains of creative people “at work,” and these scans reveal tantalizing clues to her hitherto unanswerable questions.

Earlier work has shown that high IQ is not particularly linked to creativity—“above a certain level, intelligence doesn’t have much effect on creativity,” she says. If she couldn’t predict creativity from IQ measurement (with all its flaws), she had to find other ways to find subjects for research. She looked for external recognition, which led her to the distinguished faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Interviews rather quickly revealed that mood disorders (depression, mostly) were common among the writers and often ran in families. In fact, about 80 percent of the writers she interviewed had such a mental health history, compared with about 30 percent in her control group and in the population at large.

But how to measure creativity in the brain? After years of pondering this difficulty, Andreasen finally arrived at this insight: “Creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way—seeing things that others cannot see.”

She has expanded her study to include creative individuals from the sciences as well as the arts. This inclusion has brought her George Lucas, mathematician William Thurston, and six Nobel laureates from the sciences, in addition to novelist Jane Smiley and a group of young creative achievers. Despite their diverse fields, all these individuals show similar brain processes, revealed in the scans, that differ from the workings of control group members’ brains.

Wearing her psychiatrist’s hat, Andreasen talks with her subjects (creatives and controls) about their growing up, family life, relationships, and creative activities. From these interviews, she’s learned that “Creative people work much harder than the average person—and usually that’s because they love their work.” She’s studied 26 people so far—13 creative geniuses and 13 controls—and validated the link between mental illness and creativity as well as the evidence that creativity tends to run in families, though it may not confine itself to a single field.

Other traits of the creatives include a personality style that leads them to take risks, confront rejection, and persist. Of course, she says, “Persisting in the face of doubt or rejection, for artists or for scientists, can be a lonely path,” and may in itself contribute to mental illness. Many creative people are autididacts—they love to teach themselves—and polymaths, with a wide variety of diverse interests. This holds true despite out education system’s persistent separation of the arts and the sciences. “If we wish to nurture creative students,” Andreasen says, “this may be a serious error.”

She closes by referring to the case of John Nash, the Nobel prize-winning mathematician who has schizophrenia (and who lives around the corner from me), profiled in the book and movie A Beautiful Mind. “Some people see things others cannot, and they are right, and we call them creative geniuses. Some people see things others cannot, and they are wrong, and we call them mentally ill. And some people, like John Nash, are both.”

Jennifer Egan’s Organic Writing

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Good Squad, Pulitzer Prize, writing, novel

Jennifer Egan (photo: upload.wikimedia,org – David Shankbone)

For a long time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan hadn’t consciously intended to pull together the stories that eventually formed A Visit from the Good Squad into a novel. A recent Glimmer Train interview with talks about the completely organic way of writing she employed in doing so.

The set of stories that form the book’s chapters focus on people who circle the lives of the main characters—Bennie Salazar, an aging punk rocker and recording executive, divorced, and trying to connect with his nine-year old son, and Sasha, a kleptomaniac who has worked for him. Thus, we learn about Bennie’s and Sasha’s past indirectly through these confederates.

Each of these individual stories is told in a unique, technically different way. It wasn’t a matter of just selecting a character and some different approach to telling their story, it was more the challenge of creating stories that actually required different manners of telling. As a result, for example, one is written as a slightly cheesy news story (“Forty-Minute Lunch: Kitty Jackson Opens Up About Love, Fame, and Nixon!”), and another, in the unsettling second-person, begins, “Your friends are pretending to be all kinds of stuff, and your special job is to call them on it.”

Janet Maslin in The New York Times called the book “uncategorizable.” It wasn’t until Egan had the idea of treating the book like a concept album that its ultimate form suggested itself, she says. She had no desire to write a set of linked short stories with “a similarity of mood and tone.” (An example is Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, which won the 2009 Pulitzer for fiction.)

“I wanted them to sound like they were parts of different books,” Egan says. “Because I felt if I could do that and still have them fuse, that it would be a much more complicated, rich experience.” Sticking with the record-industry theme, she says, “You would never want to listen to an album where all the songs had the same mood and tone.” The group Chicago comes to mind.

Chapter 12, structured as a PowerPoint presentation titled “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” (you can read it here), plunges into previously uncharted literary territory. This unlikely format her interviewer calls “destabilizing,” as well as beautiful and haunting. The challenge in using it, says Egan, was that it is basically a discontinuous form being manipulated to create a continuous narrative. In another writer’s hands, such a deviation from the expected might seem gimmicky, but in Egan’s view that particular chapter demanded to be told in a fragmented way, which PowerPoint enabled. Something unlikely to happen again, she says.

While the books experimentation was praised by critics and has baffled readers, Egan believes that the only legitimate way to experiment in writing is to let the content dictate the form. And that’s where the author’s creativity has to come through. Otherwise it’s an intellectual process laid on top of a story, which from the discerning reader’s point of view, never works.

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Have an iOS 7.1 Device?

Stan Douglas, Circa 1948

Stan Douglas’s exquisitely rendered mystery (photo:

If you do, you can explore an art project/mystery tale entered in this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Circa 1948 is a 3-D film noir-inspired multimedia project by Canadian Stan Douglas, who set the work—which was meticulously rendered, not photographed—in two post-war Vancouver neighborhoods. The project lets the viewer to pursue the narrative, where “you’re sort of always in the middle.” Unlike a game, there is no externally defined goal; it’s an exploration of the case of a woman falsely accused of murdering her husband. A mystery, like life. It’s getting ***** on the iTunes app store.


Robot Language

 robots, communication, Luc SteelsA meditation by Visual Thesaurus’s Orin Hargraves on how robots might develop language. He includes an enlightening TED talk with Luc Steels (Vrje Universiteit Brussels, Artificial Intelligence Lab) on experiments with robots’ learning to speak on their own through networks and the complex connections between ideas, rather than through a programmed language provided by humans. Descriptions of some of Steels’s work are embodied in this review.

When researchers allow two robots, who see the world from their own unique vantage points, to invent a way to communicate, they must come up with their own concepts and vocabulary (video). (This sounds depressingly like humans, the “unique vantage point” part and malleable vocabulary.) How will they self-organize language? Will it develop in ways we can understand, that relate to the way humans experience the world? Fascinating.


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