Unhappy Endings

But there’s another reason he never finishes, if he’s honest with himself. He’s afraid of being disappointed by the endings, which is the reason he stopped reading fiction. He’d read Great Expectations at Rikers and had loved it — this story of a criminal secretly sponsoring some poor kid’s life — until the jail librarian pointed out that Dickens had written two endings. When he found the original ending Vince felt betrayed by the entire idea of narrative fiction. This story he’d carried around in his head had two endings? A book, like a life, should have only one ending. Either the adult Pip and Estella walk off holding hands, or they don’t. For him, the ending of that book rendered it entirely moot, five hundred pages of moot. Every novel moot.

So he only reads the beginnings now. And it’s not bad. He’s even begun to think of this as a more effective approach, to sample only the beginnings of things. After all, a book can only end of one of two ways: truthfully or artfully. If it ends artfully, then it never feels quite right. It feels forced, manipulated. If it ends truthfully, then the story ends badly, in death. It’s the reason most theories and religions and economic systems break down before you get too far into them — and the reason Buddhism and the Beach Boys make sense to teenagers, because they’re too young to know what life really is: a frantic struggle that always ends the same way. The only thing that varies is the beginning and the middle. Life itself always ends badly. If you’ve seen someone die, you don’t need to read to the end of some book to learn that.

— Jess Walter, Citizen Vince

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