Some years ago, I fell out with a friend over whether Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces is a redemptive novel. I tell you this not to demonstrate that I take these things far too seriously – we eventually made up – but to show that people find redemption in strange places.
The reaction to my first novel was a case in point: some readers thought Being Someone lacked a happy ending, or at least an insufficiently unhappy one for a certain character; but even so, I maintain that it is a wholly redemptive story. True, all the characters end the book considerably worse off than at its start; a couple of them end up dead. But none the less, the seeds are sown for some kind of future happiness.
This seems particularly relevant to contemporary fiction: all fiction tells us something about the human condition but unlike some other genres contemporary fiction floats in unknowable transience: there can be no happy ending, because there is no ending. The characters, should they survive, will wake up tomorrow, beyond the reach of either the author or the reader, where any number of calamities lie in wait. We just don’t know.
We may tell ourselves that we want fairy tale endings, precisely because they are not possible in the world we inhabit. In real life, we’re all too familiar with things going wrong, with good people being brought low. In our fiction, we want to see how sometimes, maybe, the dice can fall kindly for characters for whom we have come to care. Show us their miseries for sure, but let us also see their salvation. For all the injustice piled upon her, Cinderella must been redeemed.
But, princess or not, we all know that the day after the wedding will bring its own challenges. Happy endings are impossible not because happiness is rare, but because (except for one) all endings are simply beginnings; all success the precursor of failure; each joy, the counterpoint to sadness. I can’t be the only person to have watched the end of the film Logan’s Run, as the bright young people emerge into the light from their banal captivity, and wondered how many forest nights they’re going to survive, dressed like that.
Speaking at the London Literary Festival earlier this month, Margaret Atwood made the incontrovertible observation that fiction set in a dystopian future is inherently optimistic, regardless of its miseries, simply because it implies a future. This I think is the heart of redemption in literature: that in telling stories of human endurance, we learn something of our own resilience. That there are humans struggling against almost impossible odds in the far flung future of HG Wells’ The Time Machine is a reason for optimism, not despair.
In my new book, The Cursing Stone, once again most characters end up ostensibly worse off (although this time only one of them actually dies) and again I see it as a redemptive book. The characters endure (apart from one, naturally) and in so doing they set themselves towards a future of possible happiness, greater than that promised by their original certainties. As an author, I do not seek to rescue any of them, but nor do I condemn them (OK, apart from one).
Stories about bad things happening to good people might not seem like ideal holiday diversion, but it is the core of pretty much all fiction, contemporary or otherwise. We seem drawn to it, perhaps because it seems to say more to our lives than relentless happiness. Living through adversity, even if the sunny uplands are never quite attained within the book itself but only hinted at as a future possibility, is enough. Maybe the word ‘happily’ is not the most important part of the promise contained in the ending, ‘happily ever after’.
This post is brought to you by Adrian Harvey.