The need to tell stories, to create narratives, grows from the weird essence of the human condition: we are conscious, and inextricable from consciousness is the awareness that we are going to die. This knowledge makes simply living kind of a crazy act. Plus, life is chaotic, and most of what happens during our short time alive just happens to us. Most of what happens occurs by chance or through the will of some outside entity; occasionally we are able to exert power, but usually with compromise and adjustment. So we narrate our lives as we live them, making sense of the chaos by organizing our experiences. Forming our lives into plot, we can pick out certain patterns and see some cause and effect. We learn to navigate the chaos, sometimes, little by little. We believe we are moving forward.
There are seven billion of us walking around with our stories unfolding inside our heads. We have an unspoken — generally unconscious — understanding of this fact. We tend to cluster within cultures where our narratives take similar forms. There is, though, still the problem of language. Much of the frustration of being human arises from the different experiences we have of words and their meanings, even when we speak the same tongue.
“Room,” for instance, is unlikely to be a controversial word. But imagine this scenario: you are looking for a new place to live, and you see an ad on Craigslist for a five-room apartment, for rent by owner, in Queens. You arrive at a small brick building in Astoria. The stooped, white-haired landlord walks you through the third-floor flat. It’s nice, as advertised; it has clean wooden floors and high ceilings and a walk-in closet and a big back window overlooking a fig tree. You’re impressed by the dedication it takes to keep a fig tree alive through New York winters. You walk through the spaces again, but something is off. “The ad said five rooms,” you say to the landlord. “But there are only four.” He shakes his head and rests his gnarled fingers on your elbow, leading you to the bedroom. There, he points at the walk-in closet. “Here’s the fifth room,” he says. “A great nursery, an office, a guest room.” You’re bewildered. Now you shake your head. Even if you had a baby, you wouldn’t put it in this windowless chamber. You could never work in such a space. And why would you put your guests in an outcropping of your own bedroom? But you don’t know that this building was the house he grew up in. The bedroom was shared by his three older brothers, and this tiny space was the landlord’s nursery when he was an infant. Then it became the eldest brother’s bedroom — a prize for seniority and excellence on the high school baseball team. All the brothers in this landlord’s family cycled through that little box. Still pinching your elbow, he runs his free hand along the buckling plaster wall. “This could be a great nursery,” he says again. You take half a step to get away from his fingers. Rooms have windows, you think; this is not a room. You remember the year your mother lost her teaching job, and she had to rent out your bedroom. You used food stamps and couldn’t get new sneakers in September, when ninth grade started. You lived in the basement, with a futon tucked behind a curtain your mother had hung on a piece of twine strung across the basement ceiling. You fell asleep every night to the smell of laundry and mildew. There were no windows, just vents. “Rooms have windows,” you say to the old landlord. You stand there, in the lovely bedroom of the sunny Queens apartment. You think he’s untrustworthy: after all, he lured you here with a five-room apartment, and it turned out to have only four rooms. You don’t need five rooms, but it’s the principle of the thing. He looks at you. He remembers sweet Sadie Ryan, who let him hold her hand during Holiday Affair at the Jackson movie theater. You’re nothing like Sadie. He thinks you must be spoiled, to tell him his room is not a room. He wouldn’t want a spoiled tenant. He doesn’t care if your references check out; you will not live in his childhood home.
Each single word is a metaphor, not an actual thing. The word “room” is not a room, but a series of squiggles on a page or screen. And if I say “room” to you, what you will picture and what I will picture will be similar but not identical. Words fall short, but they are what we have. It is with ordered accumulations of words that we narrate our stories to ourselves and each other. We really need these narratives. To tell our story as we live it allows us to feel as if we are moving toward something and away from other things. We say: “I’m leaving that old life and that old boyfriend behind; I’m starting a new life, and it’s going to be in Queens, which will be so much better than Brooklyn.” We say: “Nobody will ever be as good as Sadie Ryan, and that’s why I never got married.”
Literature and religion — which for a long time in human history were the same thing — were our first cultural narratives. They grew from the need for a collective sense of cause and effect; they provided a common code of behavior, something to hold onto in the slipstream between individual narratives. They displayed the darkest human urges — take the stories of Cain and Abel or Samson or Oedipus — and showed people the inevitable suffering and punishment that should result from such acts (but that, as we know, merely may or may not result from such acts). The literary theorist Jack Zipes says that fairy tales, which came along in the 17th century, were “a type of literary discourse about mores, values, and manners so that children would become civilized according to the social code of that time.”
Within every story with a moral was a story with resolution. The role of literature has changed over the centuries, and it no longer carries the burden of reinforcing our social structure and codes of behavior. But even now — after modernism, after postmodernism — we’re still looking to narratives to provide us with a sense of resolution.
We human beings love resolution; we’re constantly seeking it, aren’t we? We’re addicted to the concept; we soothe ourselves with it all the time. We say, “When I move to Queens, I’ll finally be happy.” Or: “When I have an honest landlord, I won’t be so anxious anymore.” Or simply: “Everything’s going to be okay.” Resolution will bring us stability, we believe, but in a world that is, quite literally, always moving, the best chance we have at stability is acknowledging that there’s no such thing. Pema Chödrön, the American Buddhist nun, writes: “As human beings not only do we seek resolution, we feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution.”
Literature, mirroring our nervous yearnings, also suffers from resolution. Alexander Welsh, the editor of the journal Nineteenth-Century Fiction, said of the issues inherent in ending novels: “All such problems are haunted by the possibility that the language and logic in which they are posed dictate conclusiveness where none may really exist.” Many scholars trace the question of endings and narrative in Western literature back to Aristotle’s Poetics and his theories about comedy and tragedy. But the fact that Aristotle was setting his terms for endings in 335 B.C. means that endings were troubling people even before that. I think that the desire for stories to provide a sense of finality grows from the same difficult essence of human nature that drives us to narrate our own lives. We want to know how everything’s going to turn out in a story, as we want to know in life — even as we understand in our hearts that things don’t actually ever turn out.
I’ve noticed that stories that appear to have resolutions don’t give me the satisfaction I want them to, and I imagine that’s true for some of you as well. Even if we crave resolution, it only satisfies us briefly. I’d say that the popularity of sequels and serials speaks to the fact that as humans we know that nothing resolves.
We writers have the urge to wrap up our stories, to provide our characters, ourselves and our readers with a sense of completion. For a while I had trouble ending my stories because I thought that I needed to somehow contain or recap everything that had unfolded in the preceding pages; I thought an ending had to be the end. It was befuddling for me. I hoped that in my fiction I was talking about the awkward, ineffable, eerie, and unresolvable aspects of life, and coming to a conclusion felt contradictory to what I understood as fiction’s purpose. It felt like lying.
To my mind, a story’s ending ought to acknowledge the ever-moving quality of life; that is, I want it to engage change rather than finality. Your final word and the void following it on the page are as close as you’ll get to conclusion. The best endings to stories have a sense of hovering in space and time; even a dark ending can be uplifting, exhilarating, as long as it seems to hover in space and time — because then it reflects life to us as it is: unresolved, eternally unresolvable.
Here’s another way I like to look at endings. Inhale. Your lungs inflate, your chest rises, you feel the pressure pushing outward inside your chest. If you hold your breath at the end of an inhalation, your body tenses with the pressure, your throat locks. Now exhale. Your chest deflates; your shoulders slump slightly, your belly is soft. The best stories end on an inhalation, or at that moment after you’ve inhaled but before you exhale. It’s a kind of hovering, too. Often, when you think you’ve reached the end of a story you’re writing, the truth is you actually ended it a page or pages before, or sometimes you need to continue writing a few paragraphs farther.
Say I were to write the story of you and the landlord as a piece of fiction (which, of course, I have done). What if I ended it with you leaving the apartment in Astoria and discovering you’d missed a call on your cell phone? What if you had a new message from your boyfriend, saying he’d realized the breakup was a mistake? What if you call him back, and he proposes to you? What if you get married and have three children and a house of your own where you plant a fig tree in the backyard? What if the last sentence is — to steal a line from Nicholas Sparks — “I now believe, by the way, that miracles can happen.” You know that the better ending would have been that moment when you stepped out of the brick building in Astoria and still didn’t have anywhere to live and were hit by the 95-degree heat and remembered your uncle’s rhubarb pie. Or perhaps I should leap a couple of decades into the future and a few years after you attempted to kill yourself, to a moment when you are seized by the urge to embrace strangers on the street. Or perhaps the story could just break off in the Astoria apartment, with you and the white-haired landlord locked in a spell of mutual misunderstanding. Or perhaps you do get married and have the children and the house, and our final glimpse is you, bent over, hands raw on a chilly fall day, wrapping the fig tree in burlap.
To feel brave about ending my stories without explanation or resolution, I reread the stories with my favorite endings. Hovering endings take infinite forms. Here are a few that I recommend:
For endings that go somewhere entirely new at the last moment, read “Work” and “Dun Dun” from Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson; “Sororally” by Gary Lutz. You can get a kind of shock-and-awe thrill from stories that just end in the middle of action with bracing abruptness, like “Snakes’ Shoes” by Ann Beattie and the novella House of the Sleeping Beauties by Yasunari Kawabata.
Another short novel, Motorman by David Ohle, plays with the idea of resolution but leaves its protagonist in a terrible fix with no escape in sight. Myfanwy Collins’ short-short “He Died” ends with a character resolving to say something — but we will never know what it is.
Some stories fall into the past at the end, as in Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Grave.”
Anton Chekhov didn’t deign to wrap up his stories, but he used endings to speak toward the future of the stories’ worlds and acknowledge life’s ever-changing qualities. “The Lady with the Dog” and “Verotchka” take my breath away.
Nelly Reifler is the author of See Through, a collection of short stories, and Elect H. Mouse State Judge. Her stories have appeared in publications such as McSweeney’s, BOMB, Nerve, jubilat, and The Milan Review, and have been anthologized in books including Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge and FOUND magazine’s Requiem for a Paper Bag. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and the Pratt Institute, and she is an editor at Post Road.