Today is the last stop of Jen Michalski’s virtual book tour celebrating her new collection, From Here. The twelve stories in From Here explore the dislocations and intersections of people searching, running away, staying put. Their physical and emotional landscapes run the gamut, but in the end, they’re all searching for a place to call home.
Never Forever: Where Does the Story End?
“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”
I don’t like to talk about endings. I don’t like saying goodbye to my partner when she leaves for work in the morning, nor do I gracefully accept when visitors, who only live ten minutes away, must go home. I don’t like finality in general, particularly in my fiction. The best endings, in my opinion, hint at beginnings, offer several paths on which to move forward, let the readers take a short story (or even a novel) beyond the parameters in which the author has set. Like life, fiction should not be a cross section on a slide, to be viewed in isolation under a microscope. It should be a dialogue and a starting point.
In college I was introduced to Raymond Carver, not in a class, but by a roommate who loved the short story “Fat.” When I first read it, I was confused; a waitress recounts to her fellow co-workers her revulsion and confusion over a recent, extremely obese diner, a man who eats more than she has ever witnessed anyone eat and refers to himself as “we.” The story mysteriously ends with the waitress, speaking to the reader: “It is August. My life is going to change. I can feel it.” Would her life change as the result of the encounter with the fat man? Did her perspective of the world grow, and she awaited the fruits of these insights? Was the encounter with fat man completely unrelated to her mysterious epiphany?
Of course, it doesn’t help that Carver was quoted in an interview saying that he didn’t know, either (“I don’t explain it. There too I wanted to put in something positive, maybe.”). As someone who had been taught that the ending of a story should resolve its central conflict, I was bewildered. The ending of “Fat,” or the lack thereof, stayed with me for a long time, and it wasn’t until I began seriously crafting my own fiction that I understood the role of the writer in creating endings. We didn’t. We are merely observers, relaters, of story, and we may have an opinion about the story, but, well, so does the reader. Is either one more right than the other? We provide enough information for interpretation, but stories have their own weight and life, and they resonate differently to whoever is reading them.
Don’t believe me? Join writing group, or take a workshop. There will be as many opinions of and interpretations to your story as there are writers. And sure, some of these opinions will be more right than others—perhaps the draft of your story does resolve too easily, the actions of the character don’t ring true to what we know of them, perhaps there is no conflict, but when an ending is done right, no one seems to know why. It just resonates. The light shines; a corona burns around the page. And light can only shine when the door is opened, not closed.
In a story from my upcoming collection From Here (Aqueous Books, 2013), “The Safest Place,” a Chechnyan teenager named Basha, an honor student, crosses paths with a childhood friend, Andnej, whom she protected from being bullied when they were younger. He has become a small-time drug dealer, and what begins as an innocent, touching romance turns tricky as Basha begins to act as the middleman between Andnej and some of the girls at school who buy speed from him, including Basha’s best frenemy. At the end of the novel, seeing the negative influence it has on her and her family, Basha wants to quit her part in drug trafficking, and perhaps quit Andnej, too, but he won’t let her:
“Sit down.” He put his finger to his lips, taking off his coat, his shirt, his shoes. She could see the gun tucked into his waistband, the shine of the handle in the dim light. “We’re still good, right?”
He was on her, heavy, her bones buried into each other on the bed. He looked down at her. She felt something press against her crotch, his gun or his penis, she wasn’t sure.
“Shh,” he said again. She closed her eyes. “It’s fun. We’re having fun.” [end]
People have asked me whether it was Andnej’s gun or penis, and I always tell them I don’t know. Because I don’t. When I was writing, I didn’t know what would happen next. Yes, Basha had made a choice to turn her back on Andnej in drug dealing. Whether he would plead with her or threaten her back was anyone’s guess. Whether he would put the gun at her temple and tell her he’d kill her and her family, whether he’d decide to rape her, or whether he’d simply hold her in the dark and begin to cry, I didn’t know. We know only as much as Basha knows about Andnej to this point, that he has a soft side, that he is thankful for her protection in the past and wants to return that protection as a young man, but that terrible things have happened to him in his life, and he has already begun to bend to less-healthy, less-moral impulses in his life. That he is equal parts hunger and desperation. So what will happen now? It depends on you, the reader, your life experience, what you know or don’t know about boys like Andnej, girls like Basha. Just like Carver’s “Fat,” which has stayed with me like a tattoo, good endings live on in every person who reads them, who spends time after reading the story speculating what might happen next. The best endings don’t.
*If you missed rest of the tour, head over to Grab the Lapels to get the schedule and links to access great content from Jen Michalski!
Jen Michalski is author of the novel The Tide King, winner of the 2012 Big Moose Prize; the short story collection Close Encounters; and the novella collection Could You Be With Her Now. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterlyjmww, host of the Starts Here! reading series, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown. She also is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called a “Best of Baltimore” in 2010. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and tweets at @MichalskiJen. Find her at jenmichalski.com.