Wednesday, October 1, 2014

One Perfect Ending

by Lee Upton

It’s a wonderful and rare event to come across a perfect ending.  Recently I discovered one: the six words that conclude “The Faber Book of Adultery,” the opening story by Jonathan Gibbs in The Best British Short Stories 2014.  I admire the story’s ending not only because it closes the narrative in a wonderfully gasp-worthy way, but because it’s a perfect little story in itself:

This can’t be what it’s like.

What precedes those words is a sex scene.  The story’s protagonist, an academic as well as a writer, views adultery as the overriding subject compelling the achievements of a previous generation of writers: Roth, Cheever, Updike, Yates.  Half stunned by a flirtation that’s turning into action, Mark edits in his mind each sensation as it occurs, as if he’s writing a story.  His actual participation in adultery unfolds not out of lust so much as out of curiosity, his desire to cannibalize experience for his own writing, and his naïve conviction that an earlier generation led lives infused with more sexual daring—and wrote better fiction as a consequence.

As Mark describes and mentally revises each hollow, predictable moment, experience curbs his faith in fictional depictions of adultery.  After all, what he’s experiencing bears no relation to those scenes of extramarital affairs in books.

This can’t be what it’s like.

We’re sometimes told that we read to allay loneliness, to create recognition.  We read a story and think an experience has been captured.  We think, Yes, this is what it’s like.  We might even think, A portion of my life is echoed in this story.  And yet, and yet…we may feel otherwise.  No matter what fiction depicts, we sometimes find ourselves saying, “This can’t be what it’s like.”  Our own experience is all so complicated.  Or, it’s all so uncomplicated.

Even taken out of context, the concluding statement in “The Faber Book of Adultery” resonates:

This can’t be what it’s like.

Only six words, each of one syllable.  Two contractions: “can’t” and “it’s.”  The words “not” and “is,” tucked in the pockets of those contractions.  Simple, quiet, nearly invisible verbs of being: “can,” “be.”  An unnamed referent.  The word “this,” like a finger pointing to something near.  Not like “that.”  No, “this.”  The close-at-hand.  That ending word: “like.”  The broken bridge to a comparison that isn’t stated.

The antecedent for this is “adultery”—and perhaps more.  And what is “it” in “it’s”?  What can’t adultery be like?  And the tone of the entire statement: disbelief?   Or certainty?

The story could have resolved into a brittle little social comedy, except that hovering at the periphery are children liable to be damaged by their parents’ infidelity.  The story’s opening paragraph mentions that, while the adults’ party is underway, children are sleeping.  In the final scene of the story—a story with many symmetrical moments—Mark edits his way into an affair while a child is still asleep upstairs, or presumably asleep.

The story contains plenty of more full-bodied sentences than its short final sentence, including this gorgeous one about drinking whiskey: “The taste of it spread, making his mouth glow, as if he’d been given a very gentle anaesthetic, or stung by a swarm of infinitesimal and ultimately benign bees.”  A depiction that rivals Kingsley Amis’s descriptions of hangovers.

There’s also the following comical wonder, for Mark is more aroused, after all, by his own efforts during the writing process than by the actual physical requirements of adultery: “He pushed even harder, hating himself, but wanting above all to find some way of expressing himself, his intentions, his delicate reservations, past history, world view, thoughts on the nature of signification, the problem of endings, Wittgenstein, Kelly Brook, the de Stijl movement, the novels of Michel Houellebecq and Chris Cleave, any or all of this.”

But for all that such sentences offer, the concluding sentence is especially convincing for its brevity, and for its air of wonderment mixed with disappointment: This can’t be what it’s like.  With those words the story has ended with a seemingly simple negation—preceded by an account of second-by-second sensory impressions so ultimately fine-tuned and yet banal that they would deflate the sexual ambitions of a goat.

The ending doesn’t just close the story; it holds the story in suspension.  For what is “This,” after all?  Although “this” surely must be adultery, “this” could also be the story we’ve told ourselves most recently about our own lives, or the story we’ve been reading.  Those final words suggest that the search for what a life is “like”—its shape, its meaning—can’t be exhausted, even by good books.  The ending is perfect because, in more than one sense, it doesn’t end.

Lee Upton is the author of The Tao of Humiliation: Stories (BOA Editions, 2014), and a forthcoming book of poetry, Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles, this year’s recipient of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center Open Book Prize.  She is a professor of English and the writer-in-residence at Lafayette College.

No comments:

Post a Comment