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Thomas Sutcliffe

Tom Sutcliffe: This is not the end of the matter

The Week In Culture

You suggested some fine examples of resonant last lines in novels. So much so, in fact, that I began to doubt the general truth I'd proposed, which was that they are inherently less memorable than openings. How could I have forgotten the end of The Great Gatsby, for example, which several readers mentioned ("So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaseless into the past") or the chilling last line of 1984, another multiple proposal ("He loved Big Brother"). I also found out that the American Book Review had asked its readers to do something similar a few years back and came up with a list of 100 best last lines from novels.

Thinking about it a little further, though, and reading a couple of things I hadn't had time to get to before the deadline, I reckon the distinction will still hold. Clearly novelists care a great deal about last impressions, and go to some lengths to make them effective. But there are grounds for saying that wise writers shy away from sentences that have the neatness and closure that allow for memorability. The opening of a novel can risk categorical statement ("It is a truth universally acknowledged..." "All happy families are the same..." etc) because the novel itself makes it clear that the writer understands there might be more to be said. The end of a novel, though, must steer well clear of finality, lest it tritely reduce everything that has gone before to a pokerwork motto.

Writing about this a couple of years ago the critic James Wood put it this way: "The novel is a form that doesn't want to end". This is, after all, the moment at which a novel's pretensions to limitless vitality is dangerously exposed. It isn't as large as life, it's slightly smaller, so many writers are at pains to feather the join between their creation and the world with a calculated bathos. At the end of Under the Volcano, for example, Malcolm Lowry employs that invaluable ender, death, to finish off his central character and his book. But he adds this wonderful touch: "Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine". Contingent, indifferent life reasserts itself. In Aspects of the Novel E M Forster bluntly said that "nearly all novels are feeble at the end", meaning that novelists become weighed down with the housework of loose ends as they prepare to abandon their invention. But he didn't acknowledge how carefully calculated that feebleness sometimes is.

Curiously, two readers supplied other animal related endings as well. Margot Kafno suggested the ending of Arnold Bennett's Old Wives Tale, which describes a faithful old family dog, at first spurning its bowl because of the upheaval in its routine, but then changing its mind: "She glanced at the soup-plate, and on the chance that it might after all contain something worth inspection, she awkwardly balanced herself on her old legs and went to it again". Novels may have to end, in other words, but life goes on. And Gordon Tolmie alerted me to the brilliantly mordant ending to Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square, which condenses the hero's tragedy into a downpage headline: "Slays Cat. Found Gassed, Thinks of Cat." Both, in their way, hint at another explanation for the discrepancy between beginnings and endings. The first sentence of the novel has to persuade you that it's worth turning aside from the real world to an invented one. The last sentence has to acknowledge, with reasonable grace, that the real world is about to claim you back. Many thanks for all your suggestions anyway. I suspect it's a story with infinite endings.

A bit too off the wall

Channel Four has announced that the comedy character Bo Selecta is to return for a one-off special called Cha'Mone: a Tribute to Michael Jackson. I find the audacity of this commission rather appealing. It's true that the atmosphere of hysterical and quasi-religious piety has calmed a little since Jackson's death, so the reaction might not be quite as intense as it would have been two or three weeks ago. But even so it's a bit like doing stand-up on his casket – and the suggestion is that celebrated Jackson hangers-on, such as David Gest and Uri Geller – are also going to get the Bo Selecta treatment. E4's controller described it as a "send-off and send-up", neatly side-stepping the fact that open mockery of the recently departed isn't a conventional part of the grieving process. She than added a tell-tale word – "affectionate" – often used in these circumstances and generally always meaning exactly the opposite of its superficial sense. When you see "affectionate" attached to the word parody, or pastiche or satire you can pretty much guarantee that whoever has created it has entirely justifiable anxieties that they're going to look spiteful, and has tacked this phrase on as an insurance policy. It's as cravenly bullying in its way as the phrase "it was only a joke", which rubs salt into the wound already inflicted by an insult by implying that the victim has no sense of humour. I really don't mind Channel Four taking the mickey out of Michael. But I wish they wouldn't cringe to his fans before doing it.

There are some fine jokes in Thomas Pynchon's new novel Inherent Vice, many of them deriving from the somewhat delirious relationship between the main character, a doper gumshoe called Doc, and what passes for reality in Southern California.

Sometimes reality is to blame for the misunderstandings here – turning up some surreal oddity that would have the most level-headed observers doubting their senses. But mostly it's Doc, a detective who virtually chain-smokes joints. There's a fine moment when he learns – to his considerable dismay – that Sherlock Holmes wasn't actually a real person. What aren't very funny – to me anyway– are the names, typical of a Pynchonesque whimsy when it comes to nomenclature. Names like Trillium Fortnight and Leonard Loosemeat and Adrian Prussia, all of them straining after whimsy and jocularity. Is there anything less funny than a funny name?