Monday, November 3, 2014


If YA dystopian fiction has any basis in truth, it seems that in the future the world will revolve entirely around teenagers. Man, that’s bleak. I’m a little tired of these books, frankly, and not just out of professional jealousy. Even when they’re good—and some of them are quite enjoyable and even well-crafted—they seem ridiculously simplistic, turning all of humanity into a single-sentence premise. Totalitarian regime makes teens kill each other…controls who teens are mated with…forces teens to join cliques based on vague personality traits…because when you’ve got all the power in the world, naturally you’re going to want to boss teenagers around instead of, like, I don’t know, build a mansion made of diamonds and eat donuts sprinkled with gold dust every day.

For this reason I was wary when a friend recommended Lois Lowry’s The Giver to me. It’s YA, and it’s dystopian, although it was written in the 90s well before the recent YAD craze. The book jacket blurb made me cringe a little—once again there’s a youth upon whose shoulders the fate of humanity rests, because of course we all know how deeply teenagers care about the fate of humanity and will do anything to ensure its welfare. Please. When I was that age I was clueless, not dauntless, and I daresay I wasn’t atypical, at least in this way. All that said, the Lowry book looked to be a quick read, not even 200 pages, so I dove in.

I was pleasantly surprised, always a wonderful experience in reading and one of the reasons I will keep reading as long as I have a brain that can process the written word. I was particularly struck (as most readers of this book are) by the ending. OK, here’s where I’m supposed to go “spoiler alert!!!” because I’m going to talk about that ending. I guess I’m one of the few people on the planet who doesn’t mind spoilers, but out of consideration for those who do, you might have to skip the first two sentences of the next paragraph. I recommend holding your index fingers over them, though you can also just scroll so the text disappears. I prefer the old-fashioned finger approach, but then I still have a flip phone.

The ending of The Giver is one of the most brilliant ambiguous endings ever. Basically Lowry leaves it entirely unclear whether our young hero lives to achieve his goal or dies failing to do so. Like probably every reader, when I got to that ending I went “huh?” and reread the last couple of pages several times to see if I’d missed some vital clue. I hadn’t. I groaned. I am not a fan of ambiguous endings, in part because most writers just can’t pull them off, but also because readers respond to them in ways that aggravate the literature professor in me. Every time I’ve taught a story with an ambiguous ending, some student will chirpily exclaim, “Oh, the writer did that so the reader can decide how it really ends!!” And I will smile and calmly press a pillow over the face of that cheery observation until it suffocates. No, people. No. Writers do not care how you think a story ends. Literature is not just an inkblot whereby you explore your own ideas and feelings. You can do that on your own damn time. The world is a much larger place than the dim little cave of your own cranium, so rather than trying to decide how you think a story ends, why not try to listen to what the writer may actually be saying?

A lot of life is ambiguous. We are going to not know more things than we will know in our small lifetimes, so why should stories not attempt to reflect this? Why write a clear, definitive ending to a story when so much of the world is murk and mess? Has any relationship really ended with complete resolution? Has any war? Uncertainty is pervasive. If a book ends in a way that can’t easily be comprehended, perhaps that book has captured something absolutely essential to human life. In this case, Lowry makes a crucial point relevant to this particular dystopian world (here comes the second spoiler): the hero of the book makes a decision that involves considerable risk. He lives in a society where there is almost no suffering—no illness, no war, no famine—but also no choice, no strong emotions, and no sense of aesthetics or beauty. He chooses to leave this world full well knowing the risk he’s taking. If Lowry rewards this risk with a happy ending, it diminishes the impact of that decision and that risk. And if she kills the guy, well, who the hell wants to read that?

The point is that we cannot expect our risks to pay off. We can’t believe that just because we’ve done this daring thing, we should automatically be rewarded for it. Sometimes the daring thing fails. That’s why it’s risky. If you only did things that were guaranteed success, well, you might as well be stuck in some godawful YA dystopian fantasy. You might get a cute boyfriend out of it, but you’d probably be really bored with him and the whole lame setup fairly quickly. Failure—why are people so afraid to say that word? It’s a word, not a permanent brand on one’s forehead. We fail at things because we try things. That’s not so bad, is it?

And this, as you may have figured out, is my overly elaborate reflection on the first time I tried to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I took a risk when I decided to set this goal for myself, and in this case the risk did not pay off. The details of Saturday’s race are pretty typical: a struggle through 20 miles to stay on pace and then a complete and total bonk. Yes, that’s the technical term for it. I failed to achieve my goal; this was not due to mere bad luck, nor was it due to bad training. I trained well, as well as I possibly could, but right now I am simply not capable of running a 3:55 marathon. No, this is not due to a bad attitude or a lack of confidence. Confidence comes from experience, not desire. If you believe you can achieve your goals just because you want to, you’re either incredibly privileged or dangerously delusional. I wanted it. I didn’t get it. Back to training I go.

What made this goal risky is that it’s not an easy thing to do; if it were easy, I wouldn’t care. I knew this would be hard before I even started training, and I’m even more appreciative of that now. In this case, unlike in The Giver, there is no ambiguity about the ending: I failed. Yes, failed, no sugar-coating there. It sucks to fail, but at least I’m still definitely alive, and once I’ve foam-rolled the hell out of my poor achy quads, I’ll still be running.








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