Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Who loves a happy ending?

c. David Grim (taken 5/11/08)

For the most part, I often find "happy endings" forced and rather contrived when it comes to my culture consumption. There's nothing particularly fulfilling in seeing an intriguing conflict developing over the space of an hour-and-a-half (or 200 pages), only to see it resolved by a deus ex machina, or by the sudden conversion of previously implacable characters. If we're going to get a bit of redemption tinged with loss, I can usually get behind that. But if I undergo an experience with the expectation of a "happy ending", I'm probably engaged in something that could get me into trouble.

Nonetheless there are exceptions. Some works are created with moral ambiguity, and present characters that are flawed but manage to convey a complex and deep sense of their humanity. When an author, screenwriter, or director is able to pull off this feat, I am occasionally prone to caring about the characters. It doesn't matter that I know these aren't real people. At that point I have effectively suspended my belief. I'm not looking for "and everyone lived happily ever after from then on". That would simply seem insulting. I'm not going to get anything out of a piece of art if it is so beyond realism that I can't identify with the situations.

While reading George Pelacanos' 2008 novel "The Turnaround", I found myself in that all too rare position of hoping for positive outcomes for several of the principals. Not only did I wish good things for the main protagonist and his family, but I actually found myself actively looking for the gruesome death of one antagonist. Most of the time I am quite content with following the author down whatever path he has chosen for his own creations. But while I anticipated horrors to come throughout my reading of "The Turnaround", I hardy felt empowered to expect to avoid them in a gritty crime novel.

I'm not going to tell you what the end result of all of this was. Suffice it to say that Pelecanos is talented enough as a writer to actually engage me to the point that I would care about the folks in his story. I'd imagine that most people picking up such a book would be searching to be titillated by the violent details of urban criminals and the underworld. I'm not going to claim that I chose "The Turnaround" with any other goal in mind. Had that been all that Pelecanos achieved, I likely would have been sufficiently satisfied. Fortunately he transcended the conventions of his genre.

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