I’ve been thinking about disappointment. As you do. I’ve been thinking about things that don’t go the way you want, about unsatisfactory endings.
It all started with The Goldfinch, which I’ve just finished and, before my dear reader mistakes me, I loved reading. Sure, I finished it as a blinking, listless wreck of nihilistic ennui… but I loved it.
There’s something melodic about Donna Tartt’s writing that is deployed in such a way as to almost succeed in masking quite how much Theodore Decker’s life is one multi-car pileup after another; a crushing, splintering onrush of disasters.
While the reader is distracted by the prose, by young Theo’s tendency toward romantic abstraction and his eye for beauty, off to one side and seen out of the corner of the eye; the whole world is burning. The book is the literary equivalent of a rainbow shining on the surface of an oil slick. As we follow Theo into adulthood, calmly believing he has survived the worst of what life has thrown at him, Tartt inserts the memories of his friends. They recount shared memories from their own point of view and bubbling up from the past like murderous lava through a crack in the earth comes the brutal truth. Slowly, by increments, we are cruelly disabused of our complacence.
What seemed at the time to be unfortunate but understandable binge drinking and regrettable but survivable experimentation with drugs – brought about by the exculpatory bad luck of poor adult supervision and the familiar excuse of “falling in with the wrong crowd” – was actually a vicious, spiraling cycle of suicide attempts and blackout drunkenness. What had seemed like survival was actually self-immolation.
All of which is actually beside the point: the point being the ending. The ending winds down into a limping series of moral epiphanies as a pseudo-redeemed Theo is seen trudging off into a life that the rest of us would actually recognize as a life, rather than a series of unfortunate events. This is fine, so far as moral lessons go, but what I really wish had been included is a fist-in-the-air moment of villain-thwarting. It is disappointingly off screen that shady art thief and Theo-blackmailer Lucius Reeve learns that the titular Goldfinch painting he so lusted after has been returned to the authorities. The Goldfinch ends up safe and sound, and Reeve’s chance to extort it out from under Theo evaporates in an anticlimactic puff of vanished leverage. Wouldn’t his face have been a picture?! (Pun guiltily intended.)
Similarly; the new tv drama I’ve been glued to – Critical. Again, dear reader, don’t mistake me: I love it. Sure, my heart feels like it’s going to explode for 45 minutes as the trauma patient of the week is wheeled in bleeding and on the brink of death to be tended to by a team of sawbones who wait poised on a knife-edge to save the threatened life. (Once more, pun guiltily intended.) But, I’ve detected a structural flaw. You watch from the edge of your seat as a knife-tip pulsates in a man’s heart and an unauthorized mini-surgery is conducted to snatch him from Hades’ clutches… and then you never hear about him again. He’s wheeled off to become someone else’s problem. What happens to Joe Blogs Stabbing Victim?!? Again, satisfaction is thwarted: the ignored middle sibling of pace and plot.
Funnily enough all these not-quite-complete endings reminded me of the time I was almost mugged. I feel quite privileged to have had this experience. After all, not everyone can pipe up at a cocktail party “I have a funny story about mugging actually.” But I do.
Picture the scene.
I am walking home along a shadowed canal path. The hour is late and the way is dark, but it is really the English winter that has rendered it so very black. I am quickening my pace, eyes fixed on the lights of the bridge and my mind already cast ahead to the warm glow of home and a cup of tea before bed. Quietly, in the shadows, a figure approaches me from behind. He draws level with me in the dark and says something.
I withdraw one earphone from my ear. I haven’t heard him. I look at him, my confused expression asking him to repeat his question. He pauses, and looks a little put out.
“Do you know the time?”
Now, this is where the Mugger’s evening started to go awry. I get approached in the street quite often by strange men awkwardly mumbling something to get my attention. Most women do. There are a few lousy syllables of pretense before they say something like “smile baby, when can I see you again?” and usually a stoney glare or a quickened pace will send them off in heel-draggin failure. And honestly that’s what I thought this was, so I stayed silent and relied on the old pattern of these encounters to send him wandering back into the darkness from whence he came. After all, I had never been mugged before! My first thought wasn’t “Oh, a highwayman. He’ll be wanting my valuables, better turn them over.”
Something tells me he had never mugged before either, because he seemed crestfallen that I had not interpreted his question about the time as an invitation to hand over my timepiece. And, looking back I actually think he hadn’t factored a watch into the equation at all, he was hoping I would get my phone out and check the time on that, whereupon he would snatch if from me and make off with a shiny new iPhone 5. First stop: The Black Market.
Alas for his personal wealth I wasn’t understanding him.
For my part, seeing he wasn’t sloping off like these characters usually do, my brain had started to click through the choices: check my watch and answer his question, stay silent and walk quicker, tell him I had a boyfriend who practiced mixed martial arts. But he’d already decided to try again.
“Can I see your phone.”
Now this, when you think about it from the warmth of your kitchen and far from the mugging crowd, really makes no sense at all. It definitely reads like a baby’s-first-mugging situation. And fair enough I suppose as, after all, there is no script for getting strangers to hand over their phones, no theft equivalent to “Hey, how’re you? I’m fine thanks, how are you?” No “Lovely weather we’re having and I’ll be taking everything you’re carrying, if you’d be so kind.” He was stumped by the simple linguistic problem of getting me to understand that he wanted to make my possessions his own.
By this time though I had begun to put 2 and 2 together and a murky figure 4 was forming in my mind. I knew there was a theft in the offing. I do have a relatively quick brain, not to mention my faculties weren’t muddled by a rush of adrenaline since I wasn’t the one committing a crime and, oddly now I think of it, I wasn’t actually afraid of this man. (Definitely a sign of a newly-fledged robber.)
So in the moments it took me to slide the strap of my bag down to my elbow, where I could open it, I’d been doing some thinking.
Thought 1). This was, bizarrely, a mugging. I was about to be stolen from.
Thought 2). I had, come to think of it, read about a rash of thefts following the release of the new iPhone 5.
Thought 3). The policeman that visited my secondary school a million years ago said to always hand over what muggers ask for, or they might try and kill you.
Thought 4). I was quite fond of being alive.
Thought 5). What the hell was he being so polite about? “Can I see your phone?”. I don’t think this is how muggings traditionally go.
Thought 6). What the hell is he going to do when he sees my chunky old iPhone 3?
This last thought actually came out of my mouth.
“Ok, you can see it. But you’re not going to want it.” Suddenly he was the one confused, thrown by my intellectual acrobatics: I had gone from being completely ignorant of what was happening to me and not taking my cues like a good little victim – causing him all sorts of inconvenience in having to try another tack, throwing off his practiced-in-the-bathroom-mirror ruse to get women to open their bags – to jumping a few steps ahead.
There followed an awkward silence while I rooted around in my bag: we were still standing in the pitch black and I had to hunt for the phone by feel. Finally I grasped it and withdrew it from my bag, saying as I did so “it’s pretty old.” He looked at it, looking even more crestfallen than at our communication failures, and shaking his head said “Nah, you can keep that.”
Then, lacking anything else to do and with no cues to the contrary from Mr Mugger, I put my phone back in my bag and walked off.
He didn’t follow me. He let me go.
The situation, whenever I look back on it, takes on a hilarious tendency toward re-writing. I start to feel sorry for him and imagine myself clasping his shoulder and waving my free hand between us, saying
“Hey, this is your first time? It’s mine too. We’re both new to this mugging thing, lets hash this out. Would you like my cash? Can I interest you in this bracelet?”
See, where Donna Tartt and Jed Mercurio are insensitive to the poignant disappointment of endings not going how you’d hoped I, it seems, am not. Even if it costs me my watch.