A friend of mine recently challenged me to write a short story that had a happy ending - just for a change, she said. She is a writer too, currently working on a novel, and part of a writing group I belong to. The particular story of mine that prompted her (humorous) plea - an early draft, I hasten to say - ended with the main character choosing to leave a relationship rather than give up a (neurotic ) way of coping with anxiety.
Both the story and my friend's comments got me thinking about what makes for a 'good' or satisfying ending, especially in a short story, and whether good and happy are the same thing. And, of course, it also made me wonder about what people mean by the terms, happy and ending, - happy ever after? - and once I started thinking about that I realised I had a number of other questions, including who is supposed to feel happy at the end, the character or the reader, and are they the same thing?
Once I'd gone down that road I started thinking about Raymond Carver's stories, none of which are a barrel of laughs. One of my favourite Carver stories is, So Much Water, So Close To Home. The story is not a happy one; it is one of the most powerful and devastating I've ever read. It exposes dehumanising indifference, violence and cruelty, yet it is somehow satisfying. Why? Because, in the end, the woman in the story knows so much more about dehumanising indifference, violence and cruelty, and takes her own small, yet dangerous stand against it. In other words, the character is in an entirely different moral/psychological place at the end than at the beginning. This character movement or development makes me as a reader 'happy' even when the story itself is not. And the reason for this is because in some small way, through identification with the character, I too have gained insight into the human condition, witnessed its horror and glory, and come out the other side changed in some way.
In this week's New Zealand Listener (February 4th, pp35-36) there is an article on Kelly Link, an American short story writer, who is noted apparently (I haven't read her work) for her 'open' endings. I liked her comment that:
"Stories that have too neat an ending, they're very easy to put down and walk away from. I don't want to write stories that feel disposable."
I'm not against stories with overtly happy endings, I'm sure I've read many and probably enjoyed them, its just that I can't remember any of them.