Sunday, January 27, 2013

Giving away the ending

In June of 1790, Benedict Arnold’s plans to betray his country by turning West Point over to the British were discovered, and he had to flee for his life, his name forever synonymous with treason.

Suppose you didn’t know that was how the story ended. Then you have a dashing young merchant sea captain, a daring smuggler, a loving husband of an unloving wife who gains, loses, and gains another fortune, who gives up a life as the wealthiest merchant in Connecticut to join the Sons of Liberty and then the Continental Army, who leads the first successful campaign of what is not yet even officially the Revolutionary War, winning Fort Ticonderoga and Lake Champlain for the new American cause. You have a commander who leads an ultimately unsuccessful campaign against the British in Canada, but in doing so, stays with his men through the most grueling hardship, winning their love and respect. You have the master strategist, the daring commander, the wounded victor in the battle of Saratoga, and where’s your story going?

If you don’t know that your hero is Benedict Arnold, there’s suspense, there’s indignation, there’s reader identification with this brave man who serves his country brilliantly, but is thwarted, hamstrung and betrayed over and over by cowards, publicity-seeking thugs, and petty political maneuverers.

And maybe it’s a better story that way. Hard to say, because we know the story so well.  As it is, when we read about Ethan Allen stealing the credit for the victory at Ticonderoga, about the treacherous engineer Montresor giving him misleading maps for his journey to Quebec, or the cowardly Colonel Enos turning back with 300 of Arnold’s 1000 men, about the politicians who stabbed Arnold in the back, passing him over for promotion again and again in favor of lesser men, we read it with a sense of foreboding, rather than suspense, and each of these betrayals take on a sense of inevitability. Also, a red flag goes up in our minds every time we hear of a betrayal. Those incidents loom larger in our sense of the story than they might if we didn’t know the ending. Knowing the ending makes it a different story.

E.M. Forster, in his great book Aspects of the Novel, writes about life measured by time vs. life measured by value, “and our conduct reveals a double allegiance. ‘I only saw her for five minutes, but it was worth it.’ There you have both allegiances in a single sentence. And what the story does is to narrate the life in time. What the entire novel does – if it is a good novel – is to include the life by values as well.”  The story of Arnold’s life, because it’s nonfiction and we know the end, is told by values. Betrayer and betrayed – in these moments time stands still. Of course, it’s also told by time. Events unfold chronologically. But time stands still for us as readers when a betrayal enters the story.

What can you say about a 21-year-old girl who died? What if you don’t start the story that way? If you don’t start the story that way, frankly, it’s probably not a mega-bestseller, because you don’t have a story if she doesn’t die, and you’re pretending to a suspense that the reader isn’t going to feel. Take away the suspense,  and the life told by values becomes altogether different.

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love begins with the death of Cesar – old, sick, bloated, ugly, drunk and poor. As he stands up, staggers and falls in the swoon from which he will not awaken, he knocks over the credenza which holds all of the 78 RPM records he made in his life. And for the rest of this wonderful novel, as we follow the young, brash, ruthless, gifted, self-absorbed womanizer, we see him through this veil of sadness.

Just as we know the Benedict Arnold story will end with treason, we know how “I’ll sing you the true tale of Billy the Kid / I’ll sing you the deeds that this young outlaw did” will end. By the time he’s 21, he’ll have been “shot down by Pat Garrett, who once was his friend.” But in the case of Little Joe, giving away the ending by telling us that “he’ll wrangle never more / His days with the remuda they are done” lets us know that the life measured by time is going to be short, and the life measured by values will have to be measured against that inevitability. On the other hand, in “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” we have three characters – four, with Big Jim – whose lives are measured in both time and value, and the intersections of those lives leaves room for suspense which is enhanced by our not knowing the ending.

What happens next? Is a key element in every story. Starting out by telling us what happens at the end is a choice you can’t make every time, but sometimes it can be the right choice.

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