I read Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending early last year. And it still lingers in me. Its brief 163 pages belie the universe it packs in them. And that universe is one of loss and disappointment, which, now that I’m a middle-aged man, seem to speak to me: roads not taken, decisions made or not made, an entire alternate life—a better life?—left to some other reality.
This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature.
I so often, growing up, thought my life would be like a book. Don’t we all? I’d be successful, prosperous, among the gliteratti. My best friend once had a dream that I had just returned to Los Angeles from a meeting with a New York publisher in time for her wedding. That’s the way we thought.
I’m not saying that my life is awful. Far from it. I have a loving spouse. I have wonderful fur-kids. I have a job I love. I have friends and family I adore. I’m happy with the path I chose.
But did I choose it? And how much of this path I’m on was determined by my youthful fantasies, the idea that my life should be like a great story, unfolding, with a neat, happy ending? Surely at age 20 I thought I’d be a securely published writer by age 45. (Actually, I always had an idea that I’d die young. I didn’t want to age. Age was where fire died.)
Literature is plotted. It is laid out. Even when it seems without plot, there is an intelligence putting one word after another, one scene following upon the previous.
Life, if you’re lucky, sometimes bends to your will. More often it careens wildly, throwing up hardships and joys, rain on the just and unjust. As Don DeLillo said, “all plots lead towards death’; but you don’t even need a plot for that. Life will, eventually, end the same for all, by ending. With the end of a book, the reader can imagine a vista opening up past the last page. I assume some of the religious reading this say the same happens for life. I’m not holding my breath on that one.