The Sense of an Ending
  • March 8, 2012

    Opening Round

  • Julian Barnes

    1The Sense of an Ending
    4The Devil All the Time

    Donald Ray Pollock

  • Judged by

    Emma Straub

The Devil All the Time

I’d been eyeing The Sense of an Ending on the shelf of the bookstore where I work since it came out. It is a small, handsome volume, and though it had already won the Booker Prize, I belittled it internally every chance I got. “That’s not a novel,” I’d say to myself. “How could it be?” And then I read the damn thing, and my tiny little brain exploded.

Some stories can be told in any number of media—on the page, on the screen, recounted to a friend over a cup of tea. The Sense of an Ending, slight as it is, is a novel. Time speeds up, time slows down—friendships wax and wane, as they do in life. The book’s primary and perhaps most glorious quality is an astounding lack of artifice.

Emma Straub is the author the short story collection Other People We Married and the forthcoming novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. She works as a bookseller at Brooklyn’s BookCourt, and wants to talk to you about baked goods on Twitter @emmastraub. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “Karen Russell blurbed my story collection, I introduced Alan Hollinghurst when he read at BookCourt this fall, and Téa Obreht and I share a publicist.”

Much of the story is our man Tony, the book’s narrator, sorting out his memories, in all their unreliable glory, in the wake of a classmate’s suicide. We read along as Tony remembers his first love, who then became his best friend’s girl, as the song goes. We read along as Tony marries and has a daughter, and many years later, is forced to reexamine his friend’s death. The novel’s central tension stems from the friction between nostalgia and self-awareness, and how age does not always equal wisdom. Barnes writes:

“But I’ve been turning over in my mind the question of nostalgia, and whether I suffer from it. I certainly don’t get soggy at the memory of some childhood knickknack; nor do I want to deceive myself sentimentally about something that wasn’t even true at the time—love of the old school, and so on. But if nostalgia means the powerful recollection of strong emotions—and a regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives—then I plead guilty.”

The book is stripped down to the studs, here and elsewhere, and routinely fooled me into thinking that it was as plainspoken as a conversation, though the sentences were all as beautiful as the above when I went back to check.

All of that said, I did not love the ending. I did not love it at all. In fact, I want to trim the last 30 pages out, which amounts to a good percentage of the novel. (As Tony would say, I’ve never been good at “maths.”) But it’s only a good percentage of the novel in terms of pages, which isn’t really how one counts such things. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you here.

Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the Time is far on the other end of the spectrum of novelistic intentions. The wildest The Sense of an Ending gets is a fairly graphic description of bumbling teenage mutual masturbation, and The Devil All the Time has dead dogs nailed to giant makeshift crosses, guns of all shapes and sizes, prostitution and murder and fake teeth resting on a stick of butter. It is, obviously, great fun to read.

I can’t remember the last time I read a book this visceral—the characters are sweat-soaked with browning teeth, and have the kind of relationships with Jesus that would make an only-on-holidays-churchgoer flinch. It is a souped-up thrill ride, with language that would make 12-year-old boys laugh, if they were permitted to read it: cigars are “dog dicks,” a crippled man falls in love with a clown named Flapjack, preachers deflower god-fearing virgins in empty fields. We are in Flannery O’Connor’s South here, no doubt about it. These people—almost all of them, including the law enforcement—are up to no good.

Despite all these tantalizing details, what I liked most about The Devil All the Time was the structure. The novel is carefully braided together, with several overlapping storylines, and characters that appear and reappear, all of it coming together beautifully at the end. Reading this, I felt like I was in the hands of a highly skilled writer, but without ever feeling like I’d been manipulated. The book is expertly plotted, but the dingy film that covers every surface in the novel ensures that it never feels too slickly put together.

There are aspects of both books that will stay with me: cinematically horrifying images from The Devil All the Time, and the obsessive backwards view of The Sense of an Ending. It’s a difficult choice, because I enjoyed both books enormously, but in the end, I think I have to choose the book I’m more likely to read again. That said, I think the other book should be handed to every writer who thinks that plot is scary, as an example of how complicated and delicious novels can be. It also gives me particular pleasure to have read The Devil All the Time, which I would describe as a Southern gothic horror novel of the first order, for this literary competition, and I do hope everyone reading will seek it out. (Can you tell that I went to a hippie summer camp where competition was outlawed? Because I did.)

TODAY’S WINNER: The Sense of an Ending

Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

Kevin: I went through a serious Martin Amis period right around the time I left college. I read London Fields first, after it had been pushed into my hands by a roommate, and it blew me away. One of those reading experiences where, 20 years on, you don’t just remember the book, you remember what it felt like to be reading the book. And then I went all the way back to the Rachel Papers and Dead Babies, and tore through Money and Other People. When The Information came out I stood in line at the Lakeview Barbara’s Books in Chicago and listened to the man read, and somehow that was enough. When the signing began, I took my unsigned book and walked home and started reading and it gave me every bit as much pleasure as I hoped.

Then, out of Amis books, I turned to his friends. Amis was about the only tabloid celebrity author in the world, maybe before or since, and so I started reading Rushdie and Barnes and Hitchens, too—all the guys who were involved in Amis scandals to one degree or another. And then at some point Amis stopped doing it for me. I really haven’t loved a book of his since The Information and I’ve actively disliked more than a few of them. But all these years later, I still read and love Barnes. He’s just reliably good. And Judge Straub does a better job than I could of explaining why.

I am curious, though, whether she disliked the ending because it was too much plot, or not enough. Because I could see one kind of reader going one way and another sort of reader going the other. Based on the kind of novel it is, you could read the last 30 pages as being kind of manipulative from a plotting standpoint, a twist tacked on as a concession to commercial fiction. You could also read it and go, “Really? That’s it? That’s the big deal? If that’s the big mystery of this guy’s life, why did he even bother to tell me?”

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Of course the mystery of this book is sort of beside the point, which is what I think Judge Straub was objecting to. Personally, I thought it worked as a coda on this theme, where you think your life is one thing, this narrative you’ve told yourself that has formed your identity, only to discover it had always been another thing altogether.

But I’ve long given up penalizing a book when the end falls short. How many novels have truly great endings? One in 10? For me, when a novelist sticks the landing they get extra credit, but unless they really screw it up, I don’t dock them a grade. Personally, I thought this ending was plenty good enough.

John: The father of behavioral economics, Daniel Kahneman, has spoken on the riddle of experience versus memory, an idea that I think both reflects on the Barnes novel itself, as well as different reactions to the book’s conclusion (or the way books conclude in general). In his talk, it’s more complicated than I’m making it, but as I understand it, Kahneman is telling us that memory is what we get to keep from an experience.

He illustrates this with an experiment on the amount of pain patients self-report during colonoscopies. For example, imagine that for the first 15 minutes of the 30-minute procedure, Patient A experiences high levels of pain, but by the end, he reports little or no pain. Patient B, overall reports much less pain during the procedure, but his highest levels are right at the end. When later asked about how painful a colonoscopy is, despite having experienced objectively less overall pain, Patient B is much more likely to rate it as more painful and unpleasant than Patient A.

If memory is what we get to keep from experiences, then it’s clear that endings have a disproportionate weight. Kahneman uses our memories of vacations as another example. Vacations often have rough beginnings, but if they end on a high note—say, by spending eternity in a kind of celestial glow with our besties—we tend to “forget” that crash landing on a remote island followed by being relentlessly pursued by a mysterious smoke monster and a group of predatory people know only as “the others.”

Which is to say that not penalizing a book for a flawed ending is not only generous, but a turning-away from some basic psychological wiring.

But as we Lost- (or Sopranos-) watchers all know, endings are hard, and Barnes’ is a bit of a head scratcher. I was in the “is that it?” category, which, honestly, did dim my admiration for the book a bit.

I read The Devil All the Time when it was first released, having been a fan of Pollock’s story collection, Knockemstiff. Pollock’s chief attribute is his willingness to go there, and by “there” I mean some fucked-up shit. There are some images in this book that I do not care to remember, but linger in my mind nonetheless. “Visceral” is almost not strong enough as a descriptor, but I don’t have a better one.

Pollock is often compared to Cormac McCarthy and Daniel Woodrell, and I can see that, but as I read The Devil All the Time, I never got the sense that there was something rich and elemental underneath the horror. There’s a suggestion of a world gone to rot, but for whatever reason, he doesn’t scare me the way McCarthy can and does. Maybe it’s just a bit pulpier (not a necessarily a bad thing), but while the imagery lingers, it doesn’t haunt me.

Retaining memories from experiences when it comes to books and reading is maybe even more complicated. Your memories of when and where you were when you first tapped the Amis vein color your feelings about his work. Some books also seem to linger much longer than others after the initial reading, the experience reaching beyond the pages. It’s those books, I think, that stick with us, our memory as an ongoing experience, not so different than Tony Webster’s wrestling with his own mind over his life.

Kevin: I think the ultimate example of that, at least in my reading history, is Infinite Jest. I think part of the reason that book continues to resonate with people is exactly because of the memory of reading it. It’s massive, and it’s not a quick read either, so you’re lugging this heavy thing around with you for a significant period of time. And then your reading is constantly interrupted by the endnotes, which have to be located and flipped to and then your place in the story has to be rediscovered. And all of that work, that burden you take on when you read it, is actually mirrored in the themes of the novel. It’s as if Wallace is able to reach out from the page and affect you in a very deliberate, physical way as you read. It’s often described as the first hypertext novel, but I have argued (with many people) that reading Infinite Jest on a Kindle or an iPad is like flying a plane on a simulator. I think it could still be extremely rewarding, but it isn’t the same.

And as I suggested in the introduction, I had this kind of sense-memory-thing happen while I was reading The Pale King last year. It was this big, heavy book and that voice was in my head and I liked it. It put me in a really happy place when I was reading it, but it was a kind of nostalgia more than anything.

John: Confession time. I have yet to read The Pale King. I bought it on its release day last year and it’s been on my special top shelf of books that I’m imminently going to read ever since, and I’ve passed it over for other books probably going on a hundred times now. Infinite Jest changed my life, and I believe I’ve read just about every word DFW ever published, but I’m starting to think I’ll never get to The Pale King. I tell myself that I’m waiting for the right moment when it’ll be just me and the book, similar to the circumstances under which I read Infinite Jest, but the right moment never seems to come. It’s as though some part of me doesn’t want to close that particular chapter, that I’m afraid to put a cap on those memories.

Kevin: OK, so we have our first winner, which is good because we have to get The Sense of an Ending off to our incarcerated reader judge, Roxy Reno, and all packages will be delayed as they are inspected for nail files and such.

I’m not even sure they would let you read The Devil All the Time in jail.

Next we have the definitive ventro-dorsal sex-in-the-workplace satire, Lightning Rods, taking on the latest celebrated volume of Katrina lit, the National Book Award-winning and entirely joke-proof Salvage the Bones.

It is certainly a year of interesting and oddball first-round tilts.

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