I’ve been interviewing writers recently for a literary magazine which should be launching in the winter, catastrophes permitting. One aspect of writing that has come up in conversation is what happens to fictional characters after the writer has finished with them; not simply the question of whether novelists are ever tempted to return to the cast of previous books but the fictional afterlife that forms in a reader’s mind. Every ending to a book, after all, continues an insinuation of futures. And all stories are excerpts.
Take Joyce’s Dubliners. It’s fair to say that the main characters of each short story are locked in orbits. Their paralysis, as Joyce put it, will continue long after the words on the page come to a stop. Any epiphanies have been the reader’s or characters conspiring against them. All except Gabriel Conroy in the final story ‘The Dead’ who has come to a hard but liberating understanding of the true nature of things. His pride may be shattered but his view has been transformed accordingly from the pinhole to the panoramic. His future will be troubled, less certain than it was, but it will be open. There is a unconventional hope in the midst of the melancholy of that ending, with the snow falling and shades moving through the night. He still has time and now, crucially, he knows it. The end, as with all ends in literature, is really another beginning. Kafka understood this paradox, which is perhaps why his novels have no endings, finishing abruptly mid-sentence. Kafka knew that a true end in fiction was an impossibility and an affectation.
If an ending seems complete, it’s perhaps just an indication of a failure of imagination on the reader’s part. You could take a book with as clear-cut (if you excuse the pun) a finale as Camus’ L’Étranger and wonder what stories might reverberate from it. Who was the Arab on the beach? The participants in the trial? What of the place, that sun, that sea? What of the people in the crowd who came to watch Meursault’s execution? Perhaps Camus’ father was among them; an event, in some Borgesian Möbius strip only possible in the imagination, perhaps recounted in Camus’ real-life essay Reflections on the Guillotine.
Consider every story you have ever loved. Where did the ripples from the story go? What happened further in that world constructed by the author (like Kafka’s incarnation of Prague as sketched above by Robert Crumb)? Where are the characters now? And if the lead roles have departed (a book like Jim Crace’s Being Dead suggests even this is not a finality) then what of the minor characters, the witnesses, the descendants? What became of Macbeth’s porter, Irene Adler, Edwin Drood? What happened in the unwritten pages after the final one? We learn at an early age that ‘happy ever after’ is a necessary deception (originally it was the more bitterly-realistic ‘they lived happily until their deaths’ or, as in One Thousand and One Nights, “they lived happily until there came to them the One who Destroys all Happiness”). Yet we know, even as children, that the happy ending, or any absolute ending, is not possible nor even desirable. The ripples simply multiply.