The Book Meme: Day 26

Day 26 - OMG WTF? OR most irritating/awful/annoying book ending

I'm pretty hard to shock, at least when it comes to fiction. What I sometimes learn in a history or science book has the potential to floor me because it contradicts my experience, but the whole point of fiction is that it's NOT experience. I am therefore happy suspending my disbelief in all kinds of bizarre situations, at least between the covers of a novel. In short, I am pretty much immune to the OMG/WTF effect when I'm reading fiction.

But when a book's ending contradicts the expectations the book itself has set up? Yeah, that can be a problem.

Most of the endings that have disappointed me have done so because of proportion. The final events of the book have not been problematic in and of themselves, but they have felt rushed or incompletely realized in comparison to the rest of the book. I suspect this is often a problem when the books are long and complicated, because at that point the author is thinking, consciously or unconsciously, "Just END the damn thing!" and may rush to do just that. I'm not demanding that every long work end with six chapters of denouement, including a Scouring of the Shire-style examination of how the protagonists have changed and grown. I just want there to be a sense of symmetry, a conclusion that balances what happens early with what happens late.

 I felt unhappy about the finale of Neal Stephenson's outstanding Cryptonomicon, a book the size of a cinderblock (okay, 1168 pages in mass-market paperback), because the pulse-pounding multi-thread narrative runs right up to the final events and just... stops. Frankly, I felt we needed (and had certainly earned) a bit of denouement. I'd still recommend the book for anyone who loves fiction about WWII codebreaking or 1990s data havens, and the fictional islands (and language) of Qwghlm are a delightful addition (especially if you've studied Welsh at all.) Just be aware that it's going to come to a full stop very quickly, though not quite as quickly as Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry did back in 1974.

I was of a similar mind about the end of Magnificat, the final volume of Julian May's Galactic Milieu trilogy--which is itself the end of a nine-volume multi-series sequence that begins with The Many-Colored Land and sprawls across millions of years of history and vast tracts of space. May understands that we'll need some denouement (and provides it at the ends of all three major narratives in the larger sequence), but she seems almost unwilling to delve into the climax of the book itself. The final battle of the Metapsychic Rebellion, which we've been hearing about for over 4000 pages now, simply doesn't get the kind of detailed and extended depiction that earlier events do. Heck, it's given less space than Marc's winter motorcycle race from the first volume, Jack the Bodiless. The battle is also unlike the rest of the book in that it's recounted from a very distant omniscient point of view, not the more limited and interior POVs we've enjoyed up to this point. It doesn't negate the very real love I have for the series or for the initial Saga of Pliocene Exile or for May's work in general, but I love those things in spite of this ending, not because of it.

And I'd have to say that's true of my least favorite ending, too. I have enormous fondness for Anne McCaffrey's Pern, the created world I might well choose to live in if I had to pick one. Her imagination is fascinating, and she won both a Hugo and a Nebula for her first Pern stories, and I've read at least seven of the books about her dragons... but then there's her prose. It's often perfectly serviceable, even stirring at times, but there's no question that it can clunk badly. For one thing, her dialogue suffers from a bad case of tag fever. Understand, I'm not a believer in strict limitations on vocabulary, but I've heard it argued that the only tags a writer should use are said, asked, and replied; the reason, which I think has some validity, is that these words are almost unnoticed by the typical reader, while too much use of other more descriptive words for speech can distract the reader from what the speaker is actually saying. A random page of McCaffrey will show that she's willing to distract, and do so with adverbs to boot: began, said curtly, went on heavily, retorted, replied, shouted at her, added, said finally, all but shrieked... Let's just say it's not snappy.

But endings are often the thorniest issue for McCaffrey, and the finale of her first Pern book, Dragonflight, is particularly weak. The narrative begins with Lessa, seeking revenge on the man who killed her family and stole her birthright. When dragonrider F'lar appears in search of a woman who can control a queen dragon, Lessa leaves her home to prepare the planet for the arrival of the all-consuming Thread. In part two the fiery Lessa rebels against the rule forbidding her from flying on her dragon. In the final third of the book, Lessa makes a heroic and desperate flight to save Pern from the ravages of Thread. Obviously, then, Lessa is the heroine of the book, the one who appears on the cover and the one around whom all the action is centered. So who's there to tie the whole thing up at the end? F'lar. I mean, yeah, he is a major character and all, but Dragonflight is not his book. Lessa doesn't even appear in the final section. And worse, the final sentence is a desperate attempt to gin up some excitement, using interjections, dramatic pauses, appositives, and even that shakiest of final notes, the exclamation point.

Mother of us all, he was glad that now, of all times conceivable, he, F'lar, rider of bronze Mnementh, was a dragonman of Pern!

I love Pern. I love its creator. But man, I do not love that ending. I don't even like it. Not one little bit.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on August 1, 2018 8:56 AM.

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