Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Non-endings

As a boy I was very taken with the cliff-hanger ending of The Italian Job. The lack of a resolution seemed dangerous and radical, breaking the most basic conventions of story-telling. I remember quizzing my father about it at what must have been pretty irritating length. Since then I’ve often found ‘unsatisfactory’ endings (eg. most Cohen Brothers movies) more satisfying than ‘satisfactory’ ones. This might be an unusual proclivity but then again plenty of children who end their horror stories with “And it was all a dream” then like to add the undermining coda “Or was it?”

The Years of the Locust is a punchy true account of murder and corruption in heavyweight boxing’s sordid under- and indeed over-belly. It is by writer, multi-talented blogger and fellow Steve Bruce fan Jon Hotten. I heartily recommend that you purchase it forthwith – it has many fine qualities (there’s an extraordinary chapter called Noir Boxers which rips through a great tapestry of corruption and might well put you off boxing for life) and it has stayed with me even though I read it before Christmas, ie. in another lifetime. But for me it was especially striking for its perfectly inconclusive conclusion.

Journeyman boxer Tim Anderson shoots the odious promoter Rick Parker to death, confesses immediately, is found guilty by a jury and is sentenced to life without parole. By the end of the story it is possible to say, confidently and justifiably, that Tim did commit premeditated murder, and also that he didn’t; and that he deserved to be given life without parole and also that he didn’t. We are sympathetic to the killer but, bravely and rightly, Hotten refuses to turn the book into a “Free Tim Anderson” soapbox lecture. The key passage comes after Anderson is found guilty by a jury which subsequently objected to the harshness of his sentence. The trial of Tim Anderson had been a simple one. It came down to this: two men walked into a room. One man walked out. All of it was true. None of it was true.

Endings and narratives are constructions. It’s not that all narratives are equally valid (or invalid) and therefore useless. It’s not even that history is just one damn thing after another. The problem lies with the causal chains upon which narratives depend. Virtually everything that happens has multiple causes, the various degrees of importance of which are impossible for humans to determine with any objective certainty, particularly when considering decisions and states of mind. How do you explain the moment before an action? (Anderson shot Parker on the spur of the moment, and he also shot Parker because he had built up years of justifiable resentment. Somebody had to shoot Parker and Anderson just happened to be the man unfortunate enough to be in the position to do it. He didn't have to do it, but then again he had no choice. Part of Anderson planned to shoot Parker, but Anderson was the kind of person who could never plan to murder someone. But the law can't allow people to be murdered just because they seem to really deserve it, so the guilty verdict was the right one.)

Because of the multiple causes, the causal chain is incomprehensibly complex - a web, in fact, not a chain. Futhermore, the beginnings and ends of the chains are arbitrarily selected by the narrator and, as with climate change graphs, contracting or expanding the scope radically alters the appearance of the trend. Further furthermore, a range of quite different descriptions of the same thing can all be objectively true at the same time (for example, a piece of music could be described as a series of transcribed notes, or wave frequencies, or cultural influences, or aesthetic qualities) and people often slip between different kinds of description of things in their causal chain. But then again, narratives are useful, important and morally necessary, except when they are counterproductive, trivial and morally abhorrent.

14 comments:

Outa_Spaceman said...

'Truth' does seem to be a bit of a tricky winkle and no mistake...

Brit said...

But I reject relativism. It's a tightrope really.

worm said...

this is why I stick to Enid Blyton

malty said...

French movies don't even have beginnings or middles, let alone endings.
The timing of your post is exquisite Brit, following as it does A.Cambpells appearance in front of the wet lettuces.
Best described as a journey from truth, do we think that he actually exists or has it all been a hallucinogenic moment in time.

Matt said...

You mean the Coen (not Cohen) brothers, yes?

Brit said...

No, the Cohen Brothers, of Owl&Badger Studios, Leamington Spa. Much better than the Coen Brothers, they made some great movies... No Country for Old Ladies, The Medium-Sized Lebowski. Fantastic stuff.

Matt said...

Ah. Nothing to do with coenesthesia, then.

ghostofelberry said...

Brit, you've turned into a Cormac McCarthy character. At least two of McCarthy's novels end with some meat-eater super-assassin pondering causation in just this manner.

Perhaps you are truly a meat-eater super-assassin.

Brit said...

Strangely apt that, Matt.

Elb - possibly. I've only read No Country for old Men. I keep meaning to read The Road but I heard it described as "the bleakest novel of the decade" and I need to gird my loins for that sort of thing. I prefer the comedy approach to the problem.

worm said...

"The Medium-Sized Lebowski" ahahaha that made me laugh!!! So very british

I live in Leamington Spa and I can confirm that the Owl&Badger studios loom large over the town, standing as they do on the edge of the high mesa, far above our moat and drawbridge.

David said...

All endings are arbitrary.

All beginnings are, too. The big bang is just a convenient place to start, instead of describing what would have been trillions of years of nothing, had time and nothing existed.

It reminds me of a story in which there was an effect without a cause, which became a cause without an effect.

Outa_Spaceman said...

Malty,

Your observations on French movies rings true...
In an attempt to impress a lady I was quite keen on at the time, I accepted an invitation to go and watch Nelly and Mr. Armaud...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nelly_et_Monsieur_Arnaud
It was like watching paint drying...

Does this make me a palestine I wonder..?

O.S.M.

Joey Joe Joe Jr. said...

“And it was all a dream... Or was it?”

That's a pretty good summary of all two series of life on Mars.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Hm, sounds like an excellent book. I also prefer inconclusive endings. The Third Man has the best ending of all the films I've seen - a list that, amazingly, still doesn't include The Italian Job - man doesn't get the girl, so lights a cigarette.