In all likelihood, many of you are familiar with the less common fictional tactic adopted by Italo Calvino in If on a winter’s night a traveller, in which only the beginnings of chapters are provided. Each new chapter starts out a new fiction, and there is a sense of genuine frustration for the reader (making a valid and curious fictional point), who of course cannot do anything about the unsatisfactory resolution (rather, the lack of resolution) of the individual stories. Then, there’s Julio Cortazar’s book Hopscotch, which like a few other novels that have come along since, has chapters which can be read in any order. One would think that there’s only so much innovation that can be undertaken for innovation’s sake alone. So that when one comes to Margaret Atwood’s story, “Happy Endings,” which features in its short length six different endings to “the story” of “boy meets girl,” one of the fictional plots which Atwood has always been best at in any case, one says, “Oh, okay, this is old hat; I’ve encountered lots of stories which feature different endings, even as far back as Dickens’s Great Expectations. It won’t be that unusual.” And that is where one would probably be wrong.
One would be wrong, because quoting a phrase, “the future isn’t what it used to be” when it comes to this six-part short story: there are six different segments, each supplying a different ending from part A to part F, to the opening statement “John and Mary meet,” true. But they all have the same ending, too. How can this be? Here’s how the stor(ies) progress:
“A–John and Mary fall in love and get married. They both have worthwhile and remunerative jobs which they find stimulating and challenging. They buy a charming house. Real estate values go up. Eventually, when they can afford live-in help, they have two children, to whom they are devoted. The children turn out well. John and Mary have a stimulating and challenging sex life and worthwhile friends. They go on fun vacations together. They retire. They both have hobbies which they find stimulating and challenging. Eventually they die. This is the end of the story.”
In story B, the variation is that John doesn’t appreciate Mary, and things go gradually downhill between the two of them until Mary tries to fake a suicide so that John will “repent” and they can marry; unfortunately, she is too successful at her attempt. John ends up marrying Madge and the story continues as in A.
In story C, John is an older man already married to Madge, and falls in love with Mary, who cheats on him with James, a younger man of Mary’s own age. When John discovers them in flagrante delicto, he shoots both of them and himself. Then, we are told, with a pricelessly dry tone, “Madge, after a suitable period of mourning, marries an understanding man called Fred and everything continues as in A, but under different names.”
The next story, story D, picks up with Fred and Madge, who, however, might as well be John and Mary for all the difference it makes to the eventual outcome, which we’ll get to in a minute. They live by the sea, and when their life is threatened by a tidal wave, “the rest of the story is about what caused the tidal wave and how they escape from it.” The last line reads “they…continue as in A.”
Story E also picks up with Fred and Madge, but begins with a sentence which by its very structure takes up the previous story, story D, in medias res (beginning with “Yes, but,” “but” usually being a connective and not technically grammatically correct at the beginning of a sentence): “Yes, but Fred has a bad heart. The rest of the story is about how kind and understanding they both are until Fred dies. Then Madge devotes herself to charity work until the end of A. If you like, it can be ‘Madge,’ ‘cancer,’ ‘guilty and confused,’ and ‘bird watching.'” Here, the author is both playfully and carelessly tossing away the variations and alternatives which would usually be a significant part of the plot and character choices and would help structure the story. Thus, it’s obvious by now, if it hasn’t become obvious already, that the thematic point of the story, not the plot or the characters, is where the author has really invested her energy.
F suggests “If you think this is all too bourgeois, make John a revolutionary and Mary a counterespionage agent and see how far that gets you. Remember, this is Canada. You’ll still end up with A, though in between you may get a lustful brawling saga of passionate involvement, a chronicle of our times, sort of.” (This paragraph is truly a masterful exploration of tone, inasmuch as the “see how far that gets you” implies that it won’t get you very far. The humorous self-deprecatory note of “Remember, this is Canada. You’ll still end up with A” is part of the national treasury of such moments, which disallows Canadian grandstanding on the issue of birthright and which also bespeaks a certain justifiable pride in it all the same. Finally, the phrase, “a chronicle of our times” followed by “sort of” is yet another way of taking literary pretension down a peg, by use of the casual voice.
The essence of the piece is contained in the last two paragraphs of F, in which we are told that all the endings “are the same however you slice it…The only authentic ending is the one provided here: John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.” That the essence is not only about life, however, but is about life as lived by fiction writers is revealed by the last few lines: “So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with. That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what. Now try How and Why.”
One can see from even these short quoted segments of fabula* that Mieke Bal is correct in her assumption in Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative that “a structural correspondence…exist[s] between the fabulas of narratives and ‘real’ fabulas, that is between what people do and what actors do in fabulas that have been invented, between what people experience and what actors experience….[If not,] then people would not be able to understand narratives.” This is a necessary remark to make because of the history of modernist and strains of post-modernist thought opposed to narratology, in which the assumption sometimes is that there is no essential relationship between the experience of characters (“actors”) and the experience of “real” people. I say that Bal is correct because of the very sense we get even in Atwood’s highly conscious and deliberate and ironic short story that “the future isn’t what it used to be”: that is, the future changes with our expectations, and our expectations must become narrower as do our opportunities, and all we finally can know for certain about the opportunity of this span of “real” fabula we possess is that it always has death in it.
Finally, Atwood’s challenge, “Now try How and Why” does in fact transcend the fictional experience again, however, and stand for the Alpha (“How do we come to be here?”) and Omega (“Why are we here? What is our purpose?”) not only of fictions, but of real people as well. The opposition is thus posed between “happy endings” and “the only authentic ending,” with the challenge being perhaps to see where they coalesce and whether, if the future is changing every time we get a step farther forward, it necessarily is as “grave” a matter (to make a very old and bad pun) as we might otherwise think it. Atwood’s story certainly has its share of mordant and deflating wit to keep it from too solemn a tone, while it is the very lack of morbidity itself which insures it a place among serious works about life.
* “A fabula is a series of logically and chronologically related events that are caused or experienced by actors….Actors are agents that perform actions. They are not necessarily human….” [A full set of definitions and terms used in narratology, the theory of narrative, is available in Mieke Bal’s book, as cited above.]