Saturday, July 21, 2007

Another Shelter Review

Jeff Vandermeer wrote a nice review of Shelter for the Washington Post. He basically likes the book; his main points -- which seem to be the consensus among people who (unlike the Publishers Weekly reviewer) understood what I was trying to do, are that characterization's my strong suit (I agree), but that the book's too long (I also agree), and that the ending doesn't work because it's too happy. One blogger called it a "fluffy bunny" ending; Vandermeer calls it a "rare failure of nerve."

This part I don't agree with. Criminy: I've been torturing my poor characters for 576 pages! Don't they deserve a little happiness, for a change? And in both Shelter and The Necessary Beggar (to which many readers have had a similar reaction), the happy ending's highly qualified, anyway. The characters are forever scarred by what they've been through; their lives will never be the same, and they can't go home again.

I suspect, though, that the problem's less with the happy ending than with the way it occurs in each book, with things being tied together too neatly and quickly. Vandermeer says the ending's too "compact," after an overly long novel: it's a proportion problem. The sudden, improbable turn for the better -- what mythopoeic types would call a "eucatastrophe" -- rings false to many contemporary readers. (In my experience, that's how many actual real-world happy endings happen, but as I'm constantly reminding my students, life isn't art.)

Oddly enough -- or not -- the new piece I wrote for Mythcon is about exactly this problem, among others: how does one reach a happy ending out of tragedy?

It occurs to me that this is also an issue of literary expectation: if a book has begun as tragedy, readers expect it to stay there, not to turn into comedy at the last minute. (Note that I mean "comedy" here in the technical sense of ending happily -- classically with marriage, rather than tragedy's death -- and not in the contemporary sense of slapstick ha-ha.) In life, we welcome eucatastrophe with exclamations of joy, but in fiction -- or in mine, anyhow -- it too often feels like a violation of genre.

Anyway, I wrote Shelter partly in response to the very accurate charge that the villain in my first novel, Flying in Place, was too cardboard. Nobody's calling Meredith cardboard (although some find her annoying), so I guess I resolved that issue.

My next challenge will be to write a book with a happy ending that doesn't make my readers feel cheated or unsatisfied.

I refuse to give up on happy -- or happier -- endings entirely, however.

I'll keep writing about Rickety Contrivances of Doing Good. And I'll make you like them.

Bwah hah hah!


  1. Anonymous8:48 PM

    I have spoilers for "Shelter" here; I attempted to make them vague, but please don't post if you're not OK with that.

    I did generally like the book very much, but I too had a problem with the ending. It wasn't that the end was too happy; it was that I didn't believe that, after an entire book detailing how terrible and crippling mindwiping was, that it was a large part of what made the happy ending possible. I also found it implausible that just erasing memories could wipe out a severe psychosis that was apparently present from birth.

    Or did I miss something...?

    Rachel Brown

  2. Hi, Rachel! Thanks for your comments, and I'm glad you enjoyed the book.

    Re the ending:

    It's not entirely clear that the psychosis has been wiped out; certainly some vestiges of the prior existence remain (as they did for Henry).

    I tried to establish throughout the book that there are some good outcomes with brainwiping, and that only a minority of patients do really badly. Of course Roberta sees brainwiping patients at their worst because she gets them at the beginning -- but the ethical question (the concern of CALM and Holly and such) is less "does this ever work" than "even if it did work, would it be an acceptable thing to do to people?"

    There's a pretty clear parallel with lobotomy, which also had some good outcomes, but which has now been roundly condemned as barbaric.

    It's also important to note that the "happy ending" aspect involved breaking the rules in ways few people would be able to do.

  3. Did your characters deserve a happy ending? I'm reminded of Gandalf's statement about many people dying who deserve life and vice versa. In a story the writer is God -- or rather I prefer to think of it as being Necessity who knows all ends, because if you're God how could you not have mercy? I find the concepts of moira and wyrd really useful as they apply to characters.

    As for the end of Shelter specifically, the animal names at the end made me cry, while simultaneously making me think "Hang on a moment!" I think happy endings have to be earned. In fact, I think all endings have to be earned. I think the conditional forgiveness, especially Henry's, and Kevin's death, made the balance of the ending work right for me, but I can see how it might not for someone else. The thing I thought too easy was the reintegration of Fred's memory into House, in the context of all the questions to book raises about memory and identity.

    On eucatastrophe generally, I think there's a thing it's possible to do with making endings hopeful but not happy. It seems to me that it's easier for a complex story to earn hope than a "comedy" ending. What people mean when they complain, I think, is that a comedy ending may be pat, but the end to a complex story must be inevitable. Tragic is much easier to make inevitable. I've noticed this again and again, writing, that making an ending upbeat and hopeful is much harder. It's like the twist where you go into the sestet with "but", it's much harder to go up from there than down.


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