Thursday, January 3, 2013

Driftings and Endings

I read Ian McDonald’s short story in the January issue of Clarkesworld, and it got me thinking about endings. If you don’t want spoilers, you’d better either stop reading or go read “Driftings” first because this essay is going to be spoilerific.

The story is about an artist who picks up debris from the ocean, much of it from the Japanese tsunami, and uses it to make art which he then sells to galleries. He meets a mysterious young woman and shows her what he does. She tells him a story about the pain that goes along with some of these artefacts. Meanwhile the water in the air over the seaside town is turning to salt water: salt fog, rain of salt water, the smell of rotting fish permeating everything. Acting on the woman’s gnomic pronouncements, the artist lovingly collects some of the debris he recently picked up, and offers it back to the ocean.

OK, now at this point the story gets three endings.

1) Reith drove back slick as a seal in his wet-suit. As he stepped out of the car the air caught him, breath to sigh to near-sob. Clean. Fresh. He turned his face to the clouds and let pure, sweet water fill up its hollows and stream from its angles.

I think that if the story had ended there, I’d be satisfied. The character realized that there were angles that he hadn’t considered regarding the kind of art that he was making, and he started the journey towards increased thoughtfulness, metaphorically speaking. But the next paragraph says...

2) Mouse Heart Robot: he had a pure, sweet idea for it

He’s got a new idea for an art piece. Is this idea a continuation of what he had been doing, showing that he hadn’t really learned anything? Would it be art in a radically different direction, incorporating his greater sensitivity and awareness? Having put this sentence in there, I would prefer that the author follow through and develop the consequences. Otherwise, it doesn’t add much--could go either way. It’s ambiguous, but not necessarily in a way that leads to greater understanding or reflection. And then...

3) Reith opened the door.
The living room was filled with hair. Long, sleek, black hair, hanging from ceiling to floor, sleek black hair, dripping with sea water. The door closed behind Reith. The wet hair rippled, as if someone were moving through it. The End.

OK, now what? The story just stops there--what happens next? I believe it’s a sign of a strong story if you wish that the author had written more rather than less, but I seriously feel that ending the story at this point does it a disservice. Yes, it is ambiguous.  But the character has taken actions, and those actions have consequences. One consequence is that the rain stops. OK, that’s a neat ending point. Another consequence is now a room full of hair, probably connected to the mysterious young woman. The consequences of that are not played out--the story just stops.

I was thinking about endings as well when I read a reprint of “Solitude” by Ursula K. LeGuin in Diverse Energies, an anthology edited by Tobias Buckell and Joe Monti. “Solitude” is about a woman who was raised by her anthropologist mother to be a bridge to another culture. Realizing that children adopt culture more readily than adults, she raised her daughter and son in this particular culture from about elementary school age. When they grew older she wanted to take them back to her home culture, a more “civilized” place, so they could continue their schooling, etc. The boy was ready to go, but the younger girl wanted to stay. She was now part of the culture, and returning “home” felt very alien to her. The story has a lot to say about growing up under the pull of two cultures.

However, one thing that really struck me was the structure. Midway through the story there comes a climax when the girl has to rebel against her mother in order to stay. She has to make a choice and then fight a battle to make her choice stick. When she returns to the planet, it serves as a resolution to the central conflict of the story, right? Having a read a whole lot of stories for Strange Horizon’s slush pile a few years ago, I can tell you that a less confident author would end the story at the moment of choice, not telling the audience which way the character chose, leaving it “ambiguous.” In the hands of a better author, you could have ended the story with the choice made, returning to the planet. And it would still be a darn good story.

But LeGuin is LeGuin, and she is brilliant, and so the story follows the protagonist into middle age. She re-integrates with her culture, has children, raises them, makes sure that they know about her original culture, and even makes sure that she communicates some of her observations back to her mother’s ship. It completely plays out the consequences of the choice that was made in the climax. There are other sub-plots with sub-climaxes in the latter part of the story; it’s a long enough story that there’s room to do that. To be fair to McDonald, he was working at a much shorter length. But that said, I would argue that the shorter story either needed to end with the fresh water rain, or a longer story was needed to develop the consequences of the room full of hair. Having the room full of hair without any further development seems unnecessarily frustrating.

4 comments:

Carl V. said...

I was loving Ian McDonald's story right up until he got back to his room and the thing took an enigmatic dark twist. It appeared like it was going to be this beautiful story that maybe I didn't entirely get but had something to do with not just taking from that tragedy but offering something back and then it got odd. I'm not sure what the story is trying to say at the end with the hair and all.

Carl V. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karen Burnham said...

Thanks Carl--glad to know I'm not the only one who went WTF at the end there. ;-)

Carl V. said...

I don't claim to be nearly the brilliant reader that many others are but I feel I am at least reasonably intelligent and when I got to the end I re-read the last bit a couple of times and just felt stupid, wondering what I wasn't getting.