A story is supposed to unfurl and take us somewhere unexpected, but my father used to flip to the end of whatever book he picked up and read the ending first. “You ruin the surprise!” I protested. His response was always the same: “If I know how it ends, then I’ll know if I want to read the book.” I’m a former bookseller and college literature teacher, a writer and book lover. His reading quirk wasn’t nearly as offensive as people buying books by size and color (I’d had those customers in my bookstore), but it still seemed wrong to my mind. Looking ahead is cheating.
When I read and watch TV with my phone in hand, I tell myself it’s research. I do online searches while reading historical novels or watching documentaries because I want to know about the author or director. Sometimes I want more historical context or to know if book and film versions agree. I’m curious about what reviewers have to say.
This week I spent two evenings binge-watching A Suitable Boy, a Netflix miniseries based on a novel of the same name by Vikram Seth. I was confused about the family connections, so I looked up the characters. Wikipedia provided a lovely chart. Between episodes, I read about the casting and sets. I read about various awards for the book, how it has been called an Indian War and Peace, that the promised sequel has not yet appeared.
And then I cheated. Somewhere in the last two episodes, I skimmed and then read the plot summary. Why would I do such a thing? What about all my lectures about tension and suspense, my admonitions to my father that the joy of immersion dwells in our willingness to be led into unknown circumstances?
All I can say for myself is that the suspense was doing me in. I couldn’t wait to find out which of the three love interests the protagonists would choose. I knew which one I would choose, and I couldn’t bear the disappointment if she chose otherwise. I needed to know whether the stabbing victim would live or die because I couldn’t withstand the grief if he perished. I couldn’t change the outcomes, but maybe if I knew what was coming, I could be prepared.
When the last episode ended (you must watch for yourself—I know better than to spoil endings for others), I flipped to the US news: Covid cases spiraling, the presidential election in two days, televised flashbacks to 2000 and 2016 when many of us had our hearts broken by the election outcomes, foreign interference, conspiracy theories, armed militias, threats and lies. We are living with uncertainty upon uncertainty.
I suddenly wished I could tell my father I get it. I want to know how it all turns out. Do we conquer the virus? Does democracy survive? Do we get on with our lives together? Does love outweigh hate? I want to be prepared. I want to know if I should keep going or walk away from the story. Maybe this is why I love afterlife films and books where the protagonist dies in the first chapter or is already dead. The hard stuff is over, and the story can only go on or up from there.