14 July 2007

last lines

American Book Review published its 100 Best First Lines from Novels in its January/February 2006 issue. I recently heard from co-publisher Charlie Harris that, in the wake of that issue's success, not to mention the good time had by all the participating editors, writers, and critics, next January ABR will publish a companion list: the 100 Best Last Lines from Novels.

Should you want to try your hand at the game yourself, here are the few rules Charlie lays out: "Only lines from novels or novellas count; short story collections arranged as a series that unfolds like a novel (e.g., Winesburg, Ohio or Lost in the Funhouse) count, but not typical short story collections (e.g., Nine Stories). A novel's final line will usually consist of a single sentence, but not always."

"It's interesting how much longer many of the nominated last lines are than the first lines were," Charlie emailed me as we began to think about this a little aloud. "Several . . . consist of more than just one or two sentences. One reason for this, I think, is that first lines are more or less context free, whereas final lines carry the contextual burden of the entire novel and, for maximum effectiveness, often need several sentences to do their work."

My obversation back: "That strikes me as exactly right. Too, last lines often carry what I think of as a sort of rhythmic burden, a sort of aural crescendo that depends on the lines just before them to establish the right rise and fall, or rise and rise and rise, or ironic brake or trap door."

Here are a few contenders from my list, in no particular order:

  • There was only the Viewer, slumped forever in his sour seat, the bald shells of his eyes boiling in pictures, a biblical flood of them, all saturated tones and deep focus, not one life-size, and the hands applauding, always applauding, palms abraded to an open fretwork of gristle and bone, the ruined teeth fixed in a yellowy smile that will not diminish, that will not fade, he's happy, he's being entertained. —Stephen Wright, Going Native, 1994.
  • Are there any questions? —Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale, 1986.
  • The others listened with interest, their naked genitals staring dully, sadly, listlessly at the yellow sand. —Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, 1979, trans. Michael Henry Heim.
  • The aircraft rise from the runways of the airport, carrying the remnants of Vaughan's semen to the instrument panels and radiator grilles of a thousand crashing cars, the stances of a million passengers. —J. G. Ballard, Crash, 1973.
  • Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead. —Don DeLillo, White Noise, 1985.
  • Another failure. —Ronald Sukenick, 98.6, 1975.

Which one or five or seven, I'd be interested to know, might you add? What captivates you about them in particular? About the notion of last lines in general?


Ted Pelton said...

I have just moved -- my books, where they have made it to shelves, are unordered, and many still remain in boxes. I've just spent twenty minutes looking for the books listed below to get the titles right, but alas, found none -- and there's more unpacking to do, so I can't keep fucking around like this forever. But here's a couple, including one I rediscovered while looking for the others.

Endings are the toughest thing to do, as a writer, no doubt. The ending of a book is a suite, all threads arriving at the end -- like dancing ballet at the end of running a 10k race. It might be a single word or phrase that ends the book, but this has been loaded with all that has proceeded it, as well as the langauges engaged by the novel, in the Bakhtinian sense. If the first line in a book is its birth, then the last, a death, is far more complicated to make satisfying -- the good death, as if in one's sleep, over which we have no control, exactly, and whose significance is, as both Lance and Charlie Harris have said, contextual. I agree with all their remarks above; I guess I should just shut up and get to my list, which itself will be flawed, coming mostly from memory.

1. "Tomorrow." Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things. Saving it's punch for the end, resolving the lyrical rhythms that occur throughout the book, this end points to the middle -- everything has happened, and ended, and this concludes the project of reconstruction of a small island of happiness now long lost.

2. "One bird said, 'Poo-tee-weet." Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five. This is my first effort from memory, so may be inaccurate. I've always found this simple line very profound, the natural world saying to human beings who routinely drop dombs on each other, on the earth, and on all living things, "are you fucking crazy?" -- & yet who can translate?

3. "'Now we are getting somewhere.'" Walter Abish, How German Is It. This said by the psychologist to Ulrich, the main character, who under hypnosis raises his arm in a Nazi salute -- the perfect final gesture of this novel of engineered and thus incomplete forgetting of the past.

4. "He planned to call it 'The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger Delta.'" Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. For me, the greatest end-line in any novel, resolving all the threads in a masterful turning of the discourse from the subjected people to the gaze of the conquerers, here a puzzled, rather anonymous British colonial officer who is unaware of everything that has been lovingly evoked heretofore in the novel. I may not quote it exactly, but its crucial terms -- "pacification", "primitive," "tribes" -- are all loaded, and as much as any other single moment invent the discourse of postcolonialism, still fresh some 50 years after they were written.

5. "Do you ever get any interesting Negro men coming through here?" OK, that's cheating, as it's from my own Malcolm & Jack -- but at least I know it's been quoted correctly. :-) (And tangentially, how about Kerouac's long sentence from On the Road ending "... I think of Dean Moriarty"?)

jdeshell said...

This is fun! Here are a few classics:
"Like a dog!" he
said, it was as if the shame of it should outlive him.
Kafka, The Trial

He has just received the cross of the Legion of Honour.
Flaubert, Madame Bovary

And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.

And my favorite, although not from, strictly speaking, a novel:
A story? No, no stories, never again.
Blanchot, Madness of the Day

I'm wondering how much our investment in last lines demonstrates, or is meant to demonstrate, an investment in the novel as a whole. Are there any last lines that we like where we hated or at least didn't dig the rest of the novel? Conversely, are there any novels we love where we hated the last lines? I remember not liking the end of Nightwood, but loving the rest. Same with The Waves.

Anonymous said...

Lots of great "last lines" here. I generally find closers to be more intriguing than openers, perhaps because, as Ted says above, the end of a novel or novella is always a sort of death, and therefore carries a lot of the work's (and the author's!) sweat/blood/tears, as it were (excuse the cliche).

A few of my favorites (if I may play)...

"'They'll do the same as their fathers and mothers,' answered Durtal. 'They'll stuff their guts and excrete their souls through their backsides!'"

J.K. Huysmans, La Bas

"She held out a tremulous hand to K. and made him sit down beside her, she spoke with an effort, it was difficult to understand her, but what she said[...]"

Franz Kafka, The Castle

"The box was no ordinary carton. It was tough and resilient, like hard plastic.
On the front of it was a peephole. An opening the size of a mail slot.
I peeked out. I saw myself from behind. That self was peeking out of a peephole too.
He seemed terrified.
I was as terrified as he seemed.
It was dreadful."

Kobo Abe, Kangaroo Notebook

"Weeks later, after returning with her crew and after the television studios had rejected her film without any explanation, F. sat in the Italian restaurant listening to the logician D. reading a report in the morning paper about the execution of the head of the secret service and the chief of police on the orders of the head of state, the former chief of the general staff, who had accused them, respectivelyy, of high treason and attempting to overthrow the government and had now flown south to inspect the troops he kept stationed there, evidently in order to continue the border dispute with his neighbor, after denying the rumors according to which a part of the desert was being used as a target for foreign missiles, insisting on his country's neutrality, a report F. found especially amusing after D. read another account, on the opposite page, of the birth of a healthy baby boy to Otto and Tina von Lambert, the fulfillment of a long-cherished wish for the well-known psychiatrist and his wife, who had once been thought dead and buried, whereupon D., folding the newspaper, said to F., goddamn, were you lucky."

Friedrich Durrenmatt, The Assignment (or on the Observing of the Observer of the Observers)

"Well, there you have it. Now, listen to me: Don't wait for me. Go on without me. Don't write."

Christian Gailly, Red Haze (Nuage Rouge)


Elisabeth Sheffield said...

Yes, this has been fun—to think about and also to see all your responses. Here’s another suggestion, the final sentence, or final phrase and sentence, of Marianne Hauser’s “The Talking Room”: “BONNE NUIT CHERIE. The needle has made it over the scratch and the old record is turning smoothly again around and around.”

For me, this does indeed “carry the contextual burden of the entire novel,” and so smoothly, so effortlessly as B the narrator watches her “mom and Aunt V,” after pages of wrenching separations and reunions, Sturm and Drang, “come dancing out into the hall slowly, with their bodies melted together, their eyes shut.” All is well, once again. At the same time, the “record” can also be connected to B’s baby in utero, “O,” and also to an “empty mirror frame Aunt V rescues from the wrecker” of domestic life, empty ovoids B can fill “with any shape or face [she] like[s],” as long as she doesn’t leave them empty (the “scratch”?). Because without the frame of representation, without language, there’s nothing (as mom/J’s repeated, un-recountable absences into the void suggest).

Which, more famously (and formally) is maybe what the final sentence of “Finnegans Wake” (which needing the entire preceding passage to do its work, is too long to quote) enacts as well. Even as ALP’s “leaves have drifted from [her],” as the book itself rushes out to sea, the last sentence, with its notoriously dangling “the,” runs back into the first by “commodius vicus of recirculation.”

Anonymous said...

Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

"I felt like a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger...a Man on the Move, and just sick enough to be totally confident."

Carceraglio said...

It's possible to like a last line without liking the ending-- for example, I think 'Scented Gardens for the Blind' has one of the most terrible endings in all of literature, though its very last lines are not bad:

"'Ug-g-Ug. Ohhh Ohh g Ugg.'
Out of ancient rock and marshland; out of ice and stone."

I am very partial to the ending of Coetzee's The Vietnam Project (I seem only to ever quote the same two or three books, this being one of them):

"There is still my entire childhood to work through. My mother (whom I have not hitherto mentioned) is spreading her vampire wings for the night. My father is away being a soldier. In my cell in the heart of America, with my private toilet in the corner, I ponder and ponder. I have high hopes of finding whose fault I am."

Carceraglio said...

Oh! This breaks the rule, because it's the end of a short story. Chekov's "Champagne":

"Everything went head over heels to the devil. I remember a fearful, frantic whirlwind which sent me flying round like a feather. It lasted a long while, and swept from the face of the earth my wife and my aunt herself and my strength. From the little station in the steppe it has flung me, as you see, into this dark street.
"Now tell me what further evil can happen to me?"

Christina Milletti said...

Here are a few short ones which, in their brevity, are able to capture not just the feeling of the book...but the deeper irony of their writers' larger project as well.

John Hawkes
Death, Sleep, & The Traveler
"I am not guilty."

Peter Handke
A Sorrow Beyond Dreams
"Someday I shall write about all this in greater detail."

Kathy Acker
Empire of the Senseless
"And then I thought that, one day, maybe, there'ld be a human society in a world which is beautiful, a society which wasn't just disgust."

Thomas Bernhard
"The end is no process. Clearing."