Happily Ever After?

africanqueen

I admit to a strong preference for happy endings in books.  A really strong preference, in fact; as in, I read the ends of books first to find out whether I’m going to get one.  I don’t necessarily reject all books with sad endings, but I like to have the option of rejecting them.  This is probably because when I was still young and impressionable, having seen and loved the movie version of The African Queen, I read the C.S. Forester book on which it was based.

This was a mistake.

(There’s a spoiler coming next, but if you haven’t already read The African Queen and think you might ever want to, don’t skip the spoiler.  Read on.  This is something you’ll want to know.)

I’m not shy about mentally re-writing books that I feel have let me down a little

In the book, Rose Sayer and Charlie Allnutt don’t almost get hanged, the German captain doesn’t marry them, and they don’t manage to blow up the Königin Luise; a British gunboat does.  Instead, the two lovers ride off into separate sunsets (Charlie is going to join the British Army!) with no more than a vague and unromantically-phrased “agreement” between them; and (in the author’s words) “whether they lived happily ever after or not, is not easily ascertained.”

What the hell kind of an ending is that?

And the answer to that question is—a better one than the ending to that great American classic, Huckleberry Finn.

Huckleberry Finn is, by nearly everybody’s reckoning, one of the greatest novels ever written, right up to the point where Aunt Sally says, “Why, it’s Tom Sawyer!”  Then it turns into one of the world’s greatest disappointments.

Now, I’m not shy about mentally re-writing books that I feel have let me down a little.  Just recently, The Martian got a mental re-write in which the Mars base was relocated underground.  Until I’d satisfied myself that poor Watney wasn’t going to be rescued only to die of cancer five years later, I couldn’t relax and enjoy the rest of the story.

But until just a few weeks ago, I never considered another ending to Huckleberry Finn.

This is probably because in the first English class in which I studied it (middle school, as I recall), the teacher announced, in a manner that brooked no argument, that Huckleberry Finn lapsed into silliness at the end because Mark Twain couldn’t bear to write the tragic ending that the story must inevitably otherwise have had.  There was no third choice, apparently.  It was slapstick or heartbreak.

Friends, this is a lie.  It took fifty years and more than a touch of senility to free up my brain enough to see it, but there are actually at least seven million possible alternate endings to Huckleberry Finn.  One jumps straight out at me.  Huck has his share of the treasure from Injun Joe’s cave:  Why doesn’t he buy Jim (and then, presumably, free him)?  If Miss Watson is willing to sell, why not to Huck?  Possibly Twain could even have had the Widow Douglas facilitate the sale in return for Huck’s promise to return and bear meekly with being “civilized.”  That kind of arrangement would have provided all sorts of opportunities for him to include a lot of pathos and soul-searching on Huck’s part, as he voluntarily relinquishes—not his fortune, which clearly isn’t important to him—but his freedom.

Which still leaves 6,999,999 other possible endings.  I’d love to hear some of them, if anyone will share.

The Once & Future Character

time

I’ve read a lot of stories with fantastical elements—magic, time-travel, telepathy, kindly mothers-in-law—and I’ve been dissatisfied with so many of them that I’m about to give up on the genre entirely.  It’s not the fact that they can’t be taken seriously that annoys me, although most of them can’t.  Carefully examined, time-travel (just as an example) doesn’t make sense unless there’s no such thing as causality in the universe, but that’s all right.  I’m willing to believe in time-travel for the sake of a good read.  What annoys me is that, the fantasy elements aside, so many of the stories don’t meet my usual criteria for a “good read.”

Making an incompletely-drawn character a warlock or time-traveler doesn’t complete him.  If a witch is depicted as altering present realities by means of spells and hexes, I still think the author has an obligation to provide (or ideally, to inspire the reader with) insights as to how being able to alter reality has impacted—possibly defined—the witch’s character.  Does she revel in her powers, or does she take them for granted?  And if she’s all “Bwoohahaha-die-my-pretty,” then—why?  A flat character is a flat character.  Even one who has a magic wand, a time-machine, or the ability to read minds needs a good backstory and convincing motivation.

I don’t always want to be reading so-called “literary” fiction.  For one thing, there’s less and less of it being published; and for another, there’s usually not a lot of action in a work of literary fiction.  Mostly, somebody realizes that something isn’t quite as simple and straightforward as they imagined it would be, and though they’ve already spent more than half the pages of the book thinking, they end it by resolving to think some more—only in a new, more mature way.  But please, will somebody recommend something with some real action—a battle or two; maybe a dragon or some werewolves; but not vampires.  I’m sick of vampires—in which the characters have, but are not obsessed with, an actual interior life?  Because so far all I’ve got is T. S. White’s The Once and Future King, and my copy is just about worn out.

Life-Blights, Elves, and Al Capone

al-caponeMy mother had a cousin I’ll call Ann, and Ann was very odd.  Many of my mother’s relatives were odd, in fact, and some of them were flat-out crazy; but since Ann’s principal peculiarity was that she was habitually silent and withdrawn, she was actually one of the easier family members to have around and as a child I saw quite a lot of her.  In a time when successful day-to-day living required a certain amount of interaction with other human beings, Ann couldn’t live alone (today she’d probably do everything online and be just fine), but she knew how to sew and made a modest living doing alterations in a tailor shop, so she moved from house to house among her relatives, staying with each for as long as they could bear her brooding presence hovering at the edges of the family circle.  Ann never, that I saw, actually looked directly at anyone; but if you happened to look at her, you could see that she hated you.

My mother said all the hate was because Ann had suffered a Life-Blighting Disappointment in her formative years.  According to Mom, a spirit-crushing blow often caused a sensitive soul (Ann was a sensitive soul) to go straight around the bend.

I was afraid for years to find out what Ann’s disappointment had actually been.  I thought that just hearing about it might crush my soul, too.  But eventually I asked, and my mother gravely explained that as a very young girl, Ann had entered a magazine-sponsored story-writing contest—which she won.  The judges were impressed with her work, and said nice things; and Ann and her mother took the train to Chicago to have her picture taken with them.

Unfortunately, when the judges saw how young Ann was, they refused to believe that she could really have written the story herself.  They gave the prize to the runner-up story instead, and published it in their magazine.

A sad, sad tale—with a sequel.

The sequel is that years later, my mother showed me Ann’s story, found among her things when she died.  I was impressed by Ann’s wonderful penmanship, which was like lace; but by the story—not so much.  It concerned a wedding among the adorable little elfs in Elf-land (this was before Tolkien gave us the plural elves), and was sugary enough to cause tooth decay.

It was also not original, as I discovered ten years or so later when I was leafing through some turn-of-the-20th-century magazines.  I came across a children’s story—charmingly illustrated—about a wedding among the adorable little fairies in Fairy-land.

Yep.  Same story.

In what may have been the first game of Mad-Libs ever played, Ann had gone through “The Fairy’s Wedding” and changed fairies to elves, moonbeams to sunbeams, nouns to other nouns, and verbs to other verbs.  If the fairies wore pink, the elves wore blue.  If they frolicked, the elves skipped.  If they ate fairy-cake and drank dew, Ann’s more adventurous elves ate ice-cream and drank hop-beer.  The judges had presumably rescinded Ann’s prize not because of her age, but because somewhere between the announcement of the contest winner and Ann’s arrival in Chicago, they became aware that “The Elf’s Wedding” had been cribbed from a story published only three years before in a rival magazine.

After I finished laughing my ass off, the story of Ann’s Great Disappointment suggested to me—yes—a plot for a novel.

I’ve been thinking for years of writing about the struggles of another relative of mine—another distant cousin—during the Great Depression.  I know a lot about the Great Depression.  Both of my parents graduated from high school in 1929, and for the rest of their lives, they talked about the Great Depression all the time.  As a kid, I got very sick of the topic (“Eat your vegetables.  Why, in the 30s we couldn’t afford nice vegetables like that!”), but it provided me with a wealth of potential material.

And I always had an interest in this particular cousin anyway, because aside from the unfortunate Ann, she was the only member of the family besides me who ever wanted to be a writer.  Actually, what Relative wanted was to be solvent.  Writing articles for local publications helped with that.

Relative and her husband had a new baby and a new house when the Depression hit—a house they could no longer afford, but that Relative was determined not to lose.  In 1931, when her husband left for parts unknown (so that, with no man in the house, Relative could qualify for what was known as “Relief”), she moved with the baby into the house’s unfinished attic and rented out the rooms below to boarders.  She cooked and cleaned for them (and herself and the baby, of course), and the work was hard and not always safe (a drunken boarder once attempted to break through the attic door in the night), but she’d have done anything, my mother told me, to keep her house.

Anything?

Would she have written—porn?

So here’s my plot:  Armed with a volume of 1930s porn—left by a lodger, perhaps—Relative plays Ann’s Mad-lib game, churning out pornography full of exotic new euphemisms (1930s porn was all euphemisms) that titillate a jaded readership.

So far so good.  But would she have told her husband, I wonder?  Confided in her mother?  Would she have been introduced through her work into strange—and perhaps, broadening—new social circles?  How about my own mother’s brief, innocent brush with Al Capone?  She had no idea who the “chubby Italian man” she’d been speaking to was until afterward.  Can I use that?

Of course, then—as now—to play the Mad-Libs game with somebody else’s work was illegal, unethical, and a just plain rotten thing to do.  But I’m guessing that a nice suburban lady who finds herself writing pornography at a time when pornography is not only illegal but deeply, deeply sinful would have things beyond the ethical niceties of the situation on her mind.

I can’t wait to see how the story turns out.

A Rant

dollI’m about half-through with the novel I’m working on, so I figure it’s time I started thinking about a plot for the next.  This time, I’m going to write a serious work.  A very serious work.  You get no love from the critics, I find, if you’re not deadly, deadly serious.

It’s going to be about a marriage.

I’m a bit of an authority on marriage, having personally been married for many years myself; but the marriage in my book isn’t going to be like mine, because the woman in my book isn’t going to be like me.  She’s going to be pretty, for one thing.  And she’s going to be one of those people-pleasing types.  The kind who greases the axles of society and make the wheels of the world go ‘round—sometimes for everybody but themselves.

The person she wants to please most, of course, is her husband, because she loves him.  (I’m unsure as to whether I should include a few of the men she loved and wanted to please before she got married, or whether I should just start with the husband.  I’ll think about that.)  He’s not easy to please, either—though of course, like everybody, he thinks he is.  He’s picky about his food and his clothes and how often, and under what circumstances, he visits his mother; but these are all things with which my protagonist (I’ll call her Eve) can deal.

The matter of Eve’s personal appearance—in which Hubby demonstrates a consuming interest—is more problematic.

Hubby expects her to shave her legs and armpits, of course.  Hair grows there naturally, we assume for some good reason, on Hubby as well as Eve; but Eve must shave hers in order to be desirable.  Shaving results in stubble, however; and Hubby doesn’t like stubble, unless it’s his own—which, every day after about 5pm, it usually is.  Eventually she has her legs and arms waxed, instead—a process which causes her considerable pain.  It is also expensive.  Eve’s pubic hair, too, must be carefully groomed.  Hubby likes this.

He also likes Eve to be thin.  Quite thin.  Diet-all-the-time thin.  The kind of thin that makes lush breasts unlikely.  Hubby likes lush breasts.  Clever Eve has false ones implanted.

She also speaks in well-modulated tones, so as not to threaten Hubby’s sense of manly dominance, and strives to walk gracefully in shoes that hurt her feet, but make her legs look good.  She is careful to sit properly in dresses that, were she careless, would show off body parts that are for Hubby’s private viewing.

All the waxing and the implants and the hurty shoes (also the hair and the make-up and the juice cleanses and so on and so forth forever and ever amen) are expensive; and Eve wishes she were paid more at her job.  Unfortunately, no one takes a woman who has shaved and dieted and dressed herself to look like a child with large breasts seriously, and she is passed over for several promotions.

Then comes the story’s big finish.

I’m of two minds about the finish.  One part of me wants a sad, message-y ending:  One day Eve gets old, and all the primping and shaving in the world can’t make her look like a girl again.  Hubby’s eye—and other parts—wander, and the marriage ends in divorce.

The other part of me wants a happy, message-y ending:  One day Eve says, “You know what?  That’s enough.”  She goes feral—or anyway as feral as Hubby, whom everyone regards as a perfectly normal member of civilized society despite having hair and a certain amount of body-fat—and to her surprise, Hubby says, “But you’ll still sleep with me, right?  You will?  Okay; cool!”

And they live happily ever after.

Plotting to Have a Life

goals-signpost

It has been pointed out to me that I’m not the most ambitious human being in the world.  Aside from my powerful and unaccountable drive to produce and perfect unpublishable novels (I get up early and stay up late to write them), “good enough” is always good enough for me.  Ask me where I see myself in five years, and I’m prone to blurt idiotically, “Why?  What’ve you got in mind?” because other than to spend as many hours as possible per day writing, I have no clear-cut goal in life beyond a general desire to enjoy it.  In consequence of my lackadaisical attitude, my lifetime accomplishments so far can be numbered on the fingers of one hand—fewer, if you don’t count the time I qualified for a First Aid badge by accident because I was too embarrassed to admit that I’d wandered into the wrong room at Red Cross headquarters.

My daughter says I may need a Life Coach.

Other than to spend as many hours as possible per day writing, I have no clear-cut goal in life beyond a general desire to enjoy it

As I have hinted, I’m old, and frankly a little out of things.  The concept of requiring coaching to be able eat, sleep, breathe and, occasionally, to think—the activities, as I see it, that distinguish the living from the dead—is a new  one to me.  But I asked around, and sure enough, it turned out that one of my friends actually had a Life Coach at one time.  She told me all about it.

Coaching sessions, she says, began with her coach spritzing the room with a perfume mist chosen from a selection with names like “impetus” and “inspiration.”  This was to stimulate dormant or underperforming parts of her brain, which are, apparently, very susceptible to perfume.  The spritzing accomplished, the coach would then carefully question my friend to determine what her life goals were, and exactly what she would and would not be willing to give up to achieve them.  After six weeks of this exploration, Life Coach and Friend together drew up a Life Plan, a road-map that would guide her by the least-objectionable route her to her goals.  The whole process cost $1200.

“Worth every penny,” Friend assures me.

And I’m sure it was.  She’s been very successful.

I don’t have $1200 that I care to spend on a Life Coach, but I do love to plot novels, so I came up with an alternate idea and I like it so well that I’m going to recommend it to everyone.  I think we should all write ourselves—not Life Plans—but Life Plots.

I’ll start mine by summarizing my life story so far.  After all, what has already transpired has significance for what is still to come.  And I’ll be honest about it all, too—but brief.  This doesn’t need to be like one of those Russian novels with six hundred characters.

That done, I’ll get to the good part—the part of the story that hasn’t happened yet.  What will my protagonist (i.e., me) do next?  No cheating on this, either:  I won’t allow myself to write that I one day play the cello to a sell-out crowd in Carnegie Hall unless I also write my honest plan to take a lot of cello lessons and practice really, really hard first—both of which, frankly, I know in my heart  I’m not going to do.  But I could come up with a plausible story about how I learned to do some new thing.  Or I could mellow a little.  Not only—given my nature—would my mellowing constitute quite a plot-twist, but George Eliot already demonstrated with Silas Marner that having a character mellow is commercial, too.   I could also meet some interesting new people.  Of course, in order to meet new people, I’d have to get out more; so I’ll have to write that I start getting out more.  Whether the people I meet are interesting or not may depend upon where I get out to, so I’d better give that some consideration.

Also, maybe I should dress better.

I’ll write my life’s plot, and then I’ll live it—right down (I hope) to the scene where I die peacefully in my bed surrounded by my loved ones who are happy that I mellowed and got out more and dressed better, and also at least occasionally practiced playing the cello.  It’ll be great.  A literary masterpiece.

First, though, I’m going to spritz the room with perfume.  I can afford to.  I just saved myself $1200.