Friday, June 15, 2007

Happily ever after?, part one

I’ve never seen The Sopranos, but from the inescapable coverage of last weekend’s final episode I get a sense that the show ended, not with a big denouement in which loose ends were tied and story lines wrapped up, but instead with openness, ambiguity, and a sense that tomorrow would be another day for the characters, even if we wouldn’t be around to see it. [People who’ve actually seen the episode: am I right?]

It seems that a lot of viewers, maybe even most, didn’t like that. They felt cheated, felt that their seven years of devotion had earned them the right to expect some clarity and certainty—maybe even closure—which is understandable. All stories lead us to expect an ending, but lengthy sagas tend to raise those expectations even higher: by their very scope they seem to implicitly promise to draw out for us life's hidden patterns--to organize and explain what appears to us every day as life's messiness. Perhaps better than any other fiction, long-form works meld our desire to understand characters and our desire to know what happens next; in the best of them, the two impulses eventually become indistinguishable. To keep our attention on both points over time saga creators toss countless balls into the air, and our natural impulse is to expect to eventually see each one safely caught again. We've been given something so great and capacious throughout the story that, as an enthralling saga nears its end, we hope for--even demand--something even bigger and greater as a proper send-off.

Yet at the same time if there is any fictional genre that should resist the temptation to tie things up neatly, to explain, or to deliver an anticipated payoff, it's this one. What is a saga or serial narrative after all but an acknowledgment that life doesn't fit in convenient packages, and that to understand it we must study at it at length and over time? What is it but an acknowledgment that every story we start to tell, if we're honest about it, begins immediately to spiral--if not out of our control, then at least to the very limits of it? More characters must be introduced to help us understand those we've seen, but with each new character is introduced a new story, whose end points, to the extent that they can be defined, are not necessarily the same as those of any of the other stories we're following.

Within a truly expansive and open saga, all that holds these multiple tracks of story and character together is a shared sense of the unstoppable forward motion of time. Given all that, there's nothing more artificial to the form than a final act that wraps up the story, distributing rewards and meting out punishments. More in keeping with the sense of real life that many long-form narratives are trying to convey would be something like what it seems the creators of The Sopranos have done: a pan away rather than a closing curtain--an insinuation, at least, that these lives will go on even after the cameras are gone.

As I've written about briefly already, a similar sense of frustration seems to have afflicted at least some readers of John Crowley's Aegypt sequence. They argue that after raising high expectations by suggesting in the early volumes that Pierce Moffett really might discover some long-lost occult wisdom with which to transform the world, in Endless Things Crowley essentially reneges on his promises. Instead of discovering secret wisdom, Pierce stops questing and settles down to live a quiet life as a husband and father, as close to content as he'll ever be. I've written already about why I think that ending, though unexpected, fits with Crowley's overall design and is the right one for the book--but even as I disagree with the disgruntled readers, I don't really blame them for wanting more. If a saga by its nature sets up grand expectations, then one in which the author hints broadly about hidden sources of secret wisdom would seem to promise even more of a payoff. By ending the story as he does, Crowley is essentially telling readers that Aegypt is, if they look closely, not the book they thought it was--it's a different (and, I would argue, deeper) one, offering not answers to mysteries but a reminder of why those mysteries, and the stories humans have invented to explain them, seem important in the first place. His frustration of our intentions is intentional (and, to be fair, reasonably well foreshadowed), but I could imagine it being deeply maddening nonetheless.

More tomorrow, including thoughts on how this applies to Anthony Powell and A Dance to the Music of Time (which, thanks to a suggestion from Ed (of The Dizzies), is where this all started).


  1. Anonymous8:30 PM

    I think the problem with the Sopranos finale was not that it wasn't resolved, but it ends so suddenly that most people thought their cable went out. I almost stayed up until 1 am to see what I had so obviously missed. I didn't mind ambiguity or happy endings vs. sad; it was just jarring and upsetting.

    Now, the prevalent theory, which I think is probably right, is that Tony died. Earlier in the season, someone speculated that when you get whacked, maybe everything just goes black. But this comes back around to what you are talking about. This ending may well be real, it is certainly clever, but is it satisfying? Don't we want to see the people we have gotten to know react? And yes, that isn't as real, but isn't television and literature about creating a meaning by heightening reality? It's about creating a world that does have order.

    I was also so chilled by that interpretation of the episode, that when I heard "Don't Stop Believing" in a bar, I was nervous until I got through the whole song.

  2. Wow--that is a lot more . . . hard-core? . . . than I thought from my glancing at the coverage--trying to avoid it in case I want to start watching the show sometime.

    The air of dissatisfaction does make a bit more sense, now that you explain the ending to me--but I think that ending is, though different from what I'm writing about, at least on a continuum. To cut off there is its own form of acknowledging that wherever we stop exploring a story, there's always going to be more to come.

    And I still can't believe this has propelled Journey back up the charts. That's just weird.