In art, as in life, finding the perfect ending can be a challenge. Fiction in particular, be it through the medium of film or the written word, often struggles. You sit through a two or so hour film, or get to the last thirty or forty pages of a novel and that slow creeping feeling prickles the skin, a little voice in your head urgently announcing that they, the director or the novelist, didn’t know how to finish the story. You are provided with an ending that is half-baked or not in keeping with the artform or, in some cases, just plain bonkers. You leave dissatisfied with a feeling of disheveled emptiness akin to that of the consumer of a McDonald’s Happy Meal: the tummy rumbles and the cheap plastic toy has already broken. For every wonderful, psychedelic journey into madness and alternative dimensions that the final ten minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey enthralls us with, we are forced to endure the likes of the ending of Gone Girl.
Now, to be fair, I enjoyed Gillian Flynn’s novel up until the dénouement. It was frothy, escapist beach fare at its best, but, OMG, that ending… Amy, the eponymous girl who has gone, having lied and murdered for the whole book traps her (unfaithful) husband with a contrived pregnancy. He stays for the sake of the child. Really? There has been a recent Twitter storm about authors of the masculine persuasion and their inability to write female characters and/or descriptions, but sometimes it goes both ways. As I finished the novel all I could think was: no guy would react like this. Never. The ending is not what I expected. Not in keeping with the character and, to make matters worse, offered no real justice.
Gone Girl is in good company. One of the main cultural bugbears I have is with the ending of Hamlet. The play is sublime: a heady amalgam of existential angst, human frailty, love, the role of parents and of course, the impact (or not) of revenge on the psyche. To bring it to a conclusion Shakespeare took this four hour meditation (in its unabridged form) and basically tacked on a ten minute scene of absurdly contrived murderous mayhem worthy of Monty Python. Everyone dies. Horribly. All that’s missing is the killer rabbit.
The Hamlet ending always annoyed the heck out of me, until I saw Robert Icke’s production on BBC while I was in England recently. It was a modern setting which added menace through the use of surveillance and the twenty-four hour news cycle. Andrew Scott (Moriarty from the recent BBC Sherlock series) played the Dane with a sense of revenge over shadowing all morality. Even the most famous soliloquy is spoken softly with an exploratory, thoughtful inquiry that brings the dilemma into full effect.
The play’s musical backdrop was provided by recycling the songs of Bob Dylan, and it was Dylan’s music that, for me at least, at last solved the conundrum of the ending. The plot was the same, but the feeling was one of accidental, rather than revengeful, tragedy. The song playing, “Not Dark Yet”, one of Dylan’s greatest late-period ballads, brought a sense of immense sadness as Hamlet fades and the shades of the dead appear behind him, he joins them, they fade into black, leaving a bereft Horatio. The arrival of Fortinbras played as an epitaph. It was a moving and beautiful presentation that, stripping away mych if the text, finally made a sense of the ending. I suspect it may be the only production that succeeds in ending the play to my complete satisfaction.
Of course most fiction, except the most modernist of modern literature, either aims at an (expected) ambiguity or else contrives to wrap up plot-lines and characters in a nice satisfying bow, usually in keeping with the mores of the age. Marriage, dear reader, in the case of Jane Austin. Coincidence resting on top of happy coincidence in the case of Dickens.
Real life is not like that. Endings tend towards the unpredictable and the messy.
Take two of the political puzzles of our time. The end points for President Trump and Brexit. How either finish is unclear and there are a number of ways they could play out.
For Trump I think the ending will, like Gone Girl, be unsatisfying. A capitulation rather than some grand finale. His supporters, the dogged forty percent, they want a Nobel Peace Prize and a glorious re-election in 2020. The other side want a full Nixon: resignation in disgrace and/or a successful impeachment. Neither is likely. Even if the house passes an Act of Impeachment the Democrats will not have the necessary 67 votes in the Senate; under those circumstances the President will claim vindication and remain in power for the whole of his term. Hopefully he will then be defeated by a progressive Democrat woman. However, unless the electoral defeat is in Walter Mondale territory, the effect will be to normalize and legitimize his presidency in a way Nixon could only dream of. We will all be moaning at that end.
With Brexit, my own preference would be that we forget the whole business, pretending it was a bad dream, Dallas style. My gut, however, having seen the defeats imposed this week in the UK’s House of Lords, is that it will end like most versions of Hamlet: a tragic farce in which the political leaders are beyond repair, the country is left bereft and the solution lies with Norway. The task will be completed to nobody’s satisfaction, revenge will be demanded on all sides.
It must be said that my recent political prognostication has, with the exception of Justin Trudeau, been more than a bit off. I believe the technical term is wrong. I was wrong about Brexit. I was wrong about Trump. I thought the Conservatives would wipe the floor with Corbyn in the 2017 UK election, instead Prime Minister May lost her majority.
I hope I am wrong about the ending of Trump and Brexit, but my sense is, this time, I might not be.