By: Vikram Nijhawan
My Aunt Vinay always used to say a person’s life was like a book – a quaint, if not particularly unique simile. “Every ten years is a chapter, and right now I’m on my eighth and last!” she would say, followed by the hearty chuckle of an octogenarian. Dark humour aside, I think her metric works well. A book and a life share a fundamental narrative quality, a forward propulsion. Each has their own peaks and valleys, with a healthy stream of drama running throughout. And if you look closely enough, you will find something admirable in both of them, even if the exact events weren’t exactly how you imagined them to be.
In that same vein, I think we can judge the quality of both a book and a life similarly. The dilemma lies in determining what exactly constitutes a good example of either. If a book (or life) has a wonderful ending, does that excuse a lackluster middle? Or can an anticlimactic finale ruin what had been an enjoyable experience?
This thought came to me after I finished one of the most difficult novels I’ve ever embarked on, The Heretics’ Guide to Homecoming. The words I used to describe my reading experience were “a beautiful trudge”, and that’s precisely what made this book so difficult to get through. I’ve put down countless other novels which failed to gain a chokehold on my attention and curiosity, paying little regard to them after those unceremonious disposals. But it’s the “beautiful” part of my encapsulation of Heretics’ Guide which put a snag in my usual routine. I had reason to believe my reading journey was worth continuing, that I would glean something valuable, perhaps life-changing, from this literary experience. Not that I could place a finger on it, but I felt some poignancy lurking beneath the prose. So I persisted.
And was I right in the end?
Yes. The conclusion was satisfying enough to justify the arduous, at times insurmountable climb. And that alone was enough to cast an entirely positive ray of reflection on the whole book.
When contemplating this conundrum, my mind first jumped to a famous dialogue, written by the Greek historian Herodotus almost three thousand years ago. It was a conversation between Solon, a respected Athenian law reformer, and the Lydian king Croesus. The former was a guest in the latter’s grand palace, and the discussion began when the Middle Eastern ruler asked Solon whom he believed to be the most fortunate man he’d ever known. The Greek statesman was quick to respond, referring to a man named Tellus. He was supposedly a respected figure in Athens, siring good children – who by extension brought up good grandchildren – and dying in battle to protect his beloved city-state.
Croesus was startled. He thought for certain that Solon, astounded by the luxury and seemingly endless wealth in the king’s possession, would declare him the most fortunate man he’d ever met. So he posed the question to his Greek guest once more, asking who Solon believed the second most fortunate man to be, and wistfully awaited his desired response. But Solon didn’t acknowledge Croesus on the second attempt either. Instead, he brought up the twin athletes Cleobis and Biton, who sacrificed themselves to ensure their mother wouldn’t miss a religious ritual. Croesus was so furious at his guest’s responses, he expelled him from the palace.
Solon’s answers reveal his larger outlook on life, that being a man’s life is defined by its end. He recounted the lives of whom he perceived as honourable men, and in the case of each, their respective demises were intertwined with some sort of altruism, whether dying for the city of Athens during war, or sacrificing oneself in the name of religious ritual. The statesman’s rationale perplexed his Eastern counterpart, a ruler who could care little for the thought of his own mortality, let alone how respectable his death would be seen by others. He was a conqueror first and foremost, a man whose very name evoked similar thoughts in the ancient Mediterranean world as El Dorado did to the explorers of the New World. Croesus had accrued so many material possessions, and achieved such an extreme level of comfort, that to him, whether or not the final chapters of his existence were favourable wasn’t of the slightest significance.
I believe Solon’s philosophy of what makes a good life can also be applied to books. That no matter what happens, in life or in literature, a noble ending can make all the difference in the overall enjoyment. To borrow some wisdom from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, there exists an unwritten contract between a reader and an author for the latter to conclude a story properly. Shattering this deal through an anticlimax will definitely affect the reader’s enjoyment of the author’s work.
The way I see it, there are three broad categories into which one could place all stories ever written. Firstly, they can possess a bad beginning, but really gain momentum throughout the middle and end. Conversely, an alluring opening can deceive a reader, causing him to venture further into a story, only to become trapped in quicksand-like pacing, and praying for a good end to pry him from his trappings. And finally, a reader can smoothly traverse a story, as easily as a stroll through a lovely park peppered with flowers, only to be met by an obtrusive brick wall, marked in horrid black print with the words “DISAPPOINTING ENDING”. Of these three undesirable options, there is only one which is truly unreadable. And that’s the third.
Back in Grade 7, I had an assistant teacher in my homeroom class named Mrs. Wright, who suggested a helpful rule-of-thumb for reading any work of fiction. She said if a book failed to engage her within the first fifty pages, she wouldn’t feel bad about dropping it. At least, that’s the principle she used to justify abandoning Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, which I was then attempting to make my way through. A story that doesn’t begin rolling on all cylinders, but which has true merit in its meat, feels like it was written by a criminal marketer. How could such a prize be hidden beneath a layer of thick, opaque mud, of stale characters and no intrigue? For readers like myself and Mrs. Wright, who adhere religiously to an arbitrary “first fifty pages” rule, a bad beginning can be a book ultimate downfall.
Then, we have a story which captivates you at the opening, making you trek through its pages to arrive at a satisfying conclusion. In many ways, these kinds of narratives are gateway drugs – sure the end result may be wonderful, but often times it feels like the treacherous path isn’t worth all the struggle and hardship. I’ve recently returned from one of those journeys, Sienna Tristen’s Heretics’ Guide to Homecoming. From the start, I had an inkling of hope that this book was worth reading through to completion, and thankfully I was right. It was truly unlike any fantasy novel I’ve ever read, combining intricate worldbuilding, beautiful prose, and a fresh take on a modern theme – mental health – within an archaic magical world. Although it may have felt like a chore at times, I don’t regret undertaking the challenge.
Finally, in stark opposition to a poor beginning, a lackluster finale can leave a reader feeling cheated. It isn’t bad marketing, just incredibly deceptive. Yet while conjuring examples for the previous two possibilities was relatively simple, none come to mind for this one. Maybe this speaks to my own subconscious state more than anything. Perhaps I’ve created a psychological block for such stories, and the prospect of spending hours flipping through riveting pages, only to be disappointed, is too much for me to handle.
This literary thought experiment strikes at the very core question of why we enjoy stories. There are numerous approaches to this question, and no clear objective answer. But I think Aunt Vinay had it right all along; we enjoy stories because they parallel our own lives. This is far from an original take, but rather a common one I’ve come to agree with. And if this is true, that life and a good book are one and the same, wouldn’t we all want good endings? The alternative is counting the days (or page numbers), waiting for the journey to end, dismal and in doldrums. A bad ending makes us feel that all we’ve strived and sacrificed for was pointless. It’s perhaps the worst of punishments, a hell before the afterlife. With this in mind, the solution to the initial conundrum becomes glaringly obvious.
Either a poorly-crafted beginning or middle can be forgiven. After all, mistakes made in someone’s childhood, adolescence, or even during adulthood shouldn’t always be held against one. But the collective experiences of life, culminating in one’s twilight years, spur the necessity of wise decisions, the necessity to end on a high note. The same applies to stories, and we have a word for both books and lives which fail to do so. We call those tragedies.
Thus, while the Croesuses of the literary world may believe that it’s the quality of the bulk of the work that defines it, I prefer Solon’s mindset. A good book, much like a man’s life is defined by its end. As authors of our own books, each of us has the ability to take the all-powerful pen in our hands, and write that good ending for ourselves.
Vikram Nijhawan is a second year undergraduate at Trinity College, at the University of Toronto, studying English. He partakes in much campus journalism, acting as a staff writer for Trinity’s publication The Salterrae, as well as editing for other journals and organizing writing events. Originally from Ottawa, his first major writing accolade was a winning submission for the Awesome Authors Youth Writing Contest, hosted by the Ottawa Public Library.
Photo Credit: Morgan Vander Hart on Unsplash