Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Why I'll never know if The Goldfinch has a good ending

I once walked out of a screening of Pearl Harbour ten minutes before the end. Considering at that point I'd put up with its shortcomings for over three hours you might have thought I would have stayed for that last bit of action. I didn't because it's long- windedness had made me so cross I wanted to strike back in the only way available to me. You may have had my money but I'm damned if you're going to waste another ten minutes of my life.

I've just bailed out of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch around page 700, which is a hundred pages from the end. I'd been reading it on holiday this week and for most of that time I enjoyed it: good premise, a few excellent characters and lots of educational material about the world of fake antiques. But I fell out with it for the same three reasons I fall out with so many books.

1. The hero goes through a major drugs phase. I'm sure drugs can be enormous fun to take but they're always tedious to read about.

2. It gets violent near the end. Violence has its place in fiction. I think it should be dealt with in a paragraph. If you're expecting me to keep track of who's got the deadliest weapon and which room in the house they're lurking in and expecting me to remember the name of more than one wrong un then frankly you're talking to the wrong reader.

3. In straining for a finish that justifies what's gone before, the book tired me out. It spends the last three hundred pages pumping itself up for a big finish. During that time I lost the thread, lost interest in finding out how it ended and eventually, somewhere under the Channel on Le Shuttle, gave up.

I learned a lot about the endings of stories when we were doing True Stories Told Live. Since having an ending is the thing which distinguishes fiction from real life, it's the bit that the storyteller agonises most about, often to the detriment of the story.

What storytellers fail to realise is that even if we're enjoying things we can't wait for them to end. Films, concerts, parties, novels, it's all the same.

I think it was Oscar Hammerstein who said, give them a good opening number and they'll forgive you anything.

I think it was me who said the best ending is always the one that comes along soonest.


  1. Or, as Randy Newman has it in his Love Story spoof: "anyway she dies".

  2. Agreed - more doesn't mean better. Peter Jackson's The Hobbit is the windiest example I've seen of this to date. Excruciatingly extended and no sense of economy..

    On a similar riff, I may press the pause button on Philip Hoare's Leviathan. I'm all for the historical, political and economical back-story of cetaceans - but didn't expect to be beaten over the head with phallic symbolism and homo-erotic references every few pages...

  3. Agreed. I love going to gigs. The best bit is when they finish.

    As time has gone on I have decided the most tiresome form of entertainment is the encore. I very rarely want a band to continue once they've left the stage. If it's not the end then stay on and play till it is. Otherwise I'm going home to my bed. Thanks for all the enjoyment, but if you didn't want to play Big Hit #2 or whatever during the main show that's fine but I'm not staying just as a 'special treat'

  4. "even if we're enjoying things we can't wait for them to end". How true. I often feel that I look forward to something being over so I can look back on it and think what a good time I had. Perverse isn't it?

  5. I share the English preoccupation with those high-quality, long-running but finite, American drama series that make their way across the Atlantic every year.

    A lot of these shows excel in the build-up but struggle with their endings. There have been a couple of disasters - Dexter and Lost were bad. Others are just anticlimactic.

    Over the past couple of months I have been re-watching The Shield which is a show ostensibly about a group of corrupt L.A. Cops, but in a broader sense is about the environment in which they operate.

    It ran for 7 seasons and is, for my money, the most successful show in terms of bringing its story to a conclusion in a way that keeps you guessing right up until the final seconds, but feels like an appropriate ending that is faithful to the characters and in keeping with what has gone before.

    When I first watched The Shield on TV I recall my interest waning a bit during the truncated penultimate season. Having recently watched it again I can see now that, whereas the five seasons preceding it had well-developed story arcs that could be enjoyed either in isolation or as part of a bigger narrative, season six is more like a prologue to the final season.

    You learn a bit more about the characters, where they stand and what they're capable of. That's what gives season seven its drama and allows it to build tension and then keep on building without having to stop and explain things.

    I think that sometimes you need this lull in the narrative before bringing a long-running story to a conclusion. What made the final episodes of The Shield so good was the fact that the writers got the opportunity to set it up right.

  6. Blimey. That went on a bit.

  7. It doesn't. Have a good ending, that is.