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William Lashner's PI-Writing Blog

The Big Sunday Sum-Up

Thursday, March 11, 2010

ALL THE KINGS MEN is maybe the closest we've ever come to the Great American Novel.  Jack Burden has become as much a hero to me as Sal Paradise and the book has been as big an influence as anything I've ever read.  I've been talking about endings lately and this passage comes at the end that great novel.  It's something I've never forgotten.

    This has been the story of Willie Stark, but it is my story, too.  For I have a story.  It is the story of a man who lived in the world, and to him the world looked one way for a long time, and then it looked another and very different way.  The change did not happen all at once.  Many things happened, and that man did not know when he had any responsibility for them and when he did not.  There was, in fact, a time when he came to believe that nobody had any responsibility for anything and there was no god but the Great Twitch.

This is the first paragraph of a long passage where Robert Penn Warren explicitly explains the story he just spent 500 dense pages telling.  In some way this sort of thing at the end of a book strikes me as a failure of nerve, I mean if you told the book the right way it's all in there already and this little blackboard summary should be unnecessary.  To go further, if you told it in 500 pages you did so because each word was necessary and to do this reductive thing at the end undercuts the depth of what you just achieved.

But then, in another way, it's like a gift to the reader, and it allows you to say explicitly what you've been trying to show in the body of the book.  If it's done right, and it is done right in ALL THE KING'S MEN, it can add another layer atop what you've already done.  If Mersault can explicitly "open his heart to the benign indifference of the universe," then why can't Jack Burden explicitly lay out what he gained from his own story.

I've thought about this passage for a long time, whether to use it as a model or eschew it, and I've decided I like it.  Why do I like it?  I'm not sure, maybe it because it's a part of the book I remember most vividly.  But also, since both ALL THE KING'S MEN and THE STRANGER are first person narratives, the narrator's idea of what his story meant to him could be wildly different than what the story meant to the reader (or even to the writer for that matter).  In that way it can act not so much as a summary, but as a final jolt of insight into the narrator.

The reason this has come up for me is that, at the ending of the book I'm revising, I do a little of this, having my narrator sort of explicitly detail what he's gotten from his whole adventure.  And what shows up is not what I think of the story, or what I think the reader should think of the story, but what my character thinks of the story.  And he's a bit twisted, which makes his conclusion twisted as well.  You think he's going to come out with some pablum about living within our means and finding happiness in the small things and then, bam, he goes the exact other way.  It was a bit of a surprise, but I liked what came out.  And that's why I think it works.

This has been a blog entry about a writer who . . .

Sometimes you need to write your own cliff notes.


Anonymous Kevin M Smith said...

Quit Teasing with this finishing! We are jonesing for your work. Right now, it's Saturday night and I am making my wife sit through Eliot Gould's version of The Long Goodbye for anything Victor Carl(ish)

Sorry to be a nudge.

All the best,

March 13, 2010 at 8:33 PM  

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