Thursday, October 29, 2020

What happened in the end

Pandemic reading has led me to two quite different authors and two quite different formation of one of the crucial challenges of writing in the long form: the stakes and satisfaction of an ending. 

We take it for granted, of course, that novels end. If they simple finished, terminated arbitrarily, we would recognize immediately that we possess a fragment, not a whole. And even fragments, like The Mystery of Edwin Drood, suggest their own missing structure. If we were to come across half of a broken boat, we will still see in the broken beams and keel the shape of the whole.

Here, then, is a study in contrasts.

M. John Harrison's Empty Space is the last volume in the loosely federated Kefahuchi Tract series, but it rigorously resists any disclosure that could be taken as a resolution to the complex of unsettling questions of character and causality that the sequence raises. There's a remark about a control room instrument: "Everything was processed to look 'real', arriving preassembled as a narrative from selected points of view," which taken in reverse suggests Harrison's method. From separate, selected points of view, narrative is disassembled, the structural illusion of reality is unravelled to reveal the contradictions, incoherencies, and dissonance of a future poised on the shockwave between the unfathomable physics of chaos and quantum indeterminacy and the unbearable nostalgia of submerged human identities.

But, also on my e-reading device is the first volume of the Penguin series of Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret novels—French detective fiction from the 30s, almost as far from contemporary science fiction as you could get. And, of course, what happens at the end of any Maigret is that the crime is solved, the guilty are discovered, the selected points of view, clues, plot points, are assembled into the narrative of the crime and its solution.

And yet—I'm not sure anymore whether Empty Space can be called an "open" ending and Pietr the Latvian, for instance, a "closed" one. Because however the inspector exposes the material logic of the crime, the human problem, Maigret's point of entry into the solution, with all its paradoxes and contradictions, remains. And isn't that the point of Harrison's radical uncertainties and unresolved threads, and inchoate nostalgia, that the human problem persists, a struggle to assert a sense of reality and identity against the shimmering chaos of an unknowable universe?

Whether SF or police procedural, perhaps the distinction lies in what is settled and unsettled, the points that are decided and undecided. In this sense, Harrison's project is to disrupt the confident teleology of technological progress, where Maigret's detective can close the case but leave open, and subtly unstated, the implications of character and the ironies of morality, guilt and deviation. In any case, what happened in the end counts, but we are left with something beyond the ending that haunts our reading still.

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