About five years ago, I had a run of incredibly ambivalent luck when, over the course of a single summer I read the novels The Time Traveler’s Wife, Never Let Me Go, Children of Men, and Oryx & Crake. This was a profoundly disturbing experience for me as I am a shallow person who doesn’t just tend toward happy endings but rather seeks them out with the unerring, indefatigable single-mindedness of a Sidewinder missile hot on the exhaust of an enemy jet.
For those of you who haven’t had a chance to read these four excellent works, I urge you to go do that now because this post is going to be full of inadvertent SPOILERS.
I started that summer with Time Traveler’s Wife having no idea what lay before me. I had read some glowing book review somewhere, needed something read, and eagerly dove in. The first two thirds of this book are so much fun and the quirky, out-of-sequence love story is so clever and beguiling that you really have no idea that the light at the end of the tunnel is actually a gamma ray burst that will hollow out your happiness for the next four months.
Seeking to shake myself from the well of despair that book left me in, I immediately jumped into Children of Men. At least this one didn’t pretend to be a happy shiny love story before it grew fangs and went for my giblets. Children starts off in a weary, gray version of Earth where the population has become steadily more infertile over time until the people of Earth are just wiling away the hours until oblivion comes to collect them. Front to back, this is a tour of the despair of knowing one’s demise is imminent, but instead of being about a single person dying of cancer, it’s about a whole race simply dying out. If you’ve seen the move, by the way, you haven’t read the book. They took some serious departures there, as usual.
Once again stunned and disoriented, I turned to Oryx & Crake. I had never read the book of The Handmaid’s Tale but I’d seen the movie so I should have been at least partially warned. My problem is that when I decide to read a book or watch a movie, I refuse to read any reviews beforehand. I want the experience, good or bad, to be all mine. Oryx & Crake, it turns out, is another book about the human race eking out its last desperate puffs of breath.
At this point, I asked MLA to hide all the sharp things in the house.
If I remember correctly, it took me two months to read those three books. While I tore through Time Traveler in a hurry, my pace was slowed appreciably for the others by work & family demands and a general lack of momentum caused by the contents of the books.
Finally, I set to reading Never Let Me Go. This book was so disquieting that I didn’t even start to read anything else for a month after I finished. This is rare for me. I always have to have a book in progress or I go crazy. Just to give you an idea of what a chipper and upbeat story this is, let me just say that it’s about a group of children growing up in a special boarding school. What’s special about this school is that the children are clones being set aside so that they can make “donations” later in life when their originals need an organ. What makes it worse is that all of that happens mostly in the background while in the foreground it’s just a story about kids growing up together and all the drama entailed therein. I think the fact that the story never really deals head on with their situation makes it all the more horrific.
Let me pause for a moment to save you from a potential bout of suicidal depression by detailing the correct order in which to read these books:
1) Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
2) Ready Player One, Ernest Cline
3) Children of Men, P. D. James
4) Agent to the Stars, John Scalzi
5) Oryx & Crake, Margaret Atwood
6) Android’s Dream, John Scalzi
7) The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
8) Red Shirts, John Scalzi
Notice that I lean pretty heavily on John Scalzi for the interstitial reads. That’s because, as I’ll discuss in a future post, he is a master plotter who knows how to bring home the happy ending. There is little that is more satisfying than reading the last page of a Scalzi story.
Anyway, the reason I bring this up (apart from being a warning to others) is that these four authors did something I would never do. I wasn’t kidding when I said I like happy endings. I would never in a million years set out to write a book that ends like Oryx & Crake or Time Traveler’s Wife and I would never set a novel in a world as bleak as Children of Men or Never Let me Go. I would not seek to do it and I would not allow myself to accidentally do it because I do not have that much self confidence.
I mean, honestly, you have to have a ton of faith in your prose style and you storytelling skills to place a story in a gray, uninteresting landscape because you don’t have fantastical adventures as a break from the relentlessly downbeat surroundings. And as far as the ending is concerned? No way would I try to pull off the ones from Time Traveler’s Wife or Oryx & Crake because I would have trouble believing I had left the reader feeling fulfilled. That’s something I’m very touchy about.
Now, just to be clear, I’m not bagging on these books – they were each an excellent experience in their own way – I’m just saying that the emotional impact of reading them was profound and long lasting. It’s sort of like a meal you had once that you loved but would never order again because it was just too rich.
Maybe someday I will have the courage to move into that gray area but for now I will continue to seek out (and to write) upbeat, if not outright happy, endings for my own peace of mind.