by Morgan on January 29, 2011
The first adult novel I read was Flowers for Algernon. My brother had read it in school and told me I should read it too, so I went and found it at the public library. I remember feeling that this was a very grown-up thing for me to do. I must have been about nine-years-old, maybe ten.
I have a visceral, perfectly-preserved memory of reading the end of that novel, alone and sobbing, on the floor of my bedroom closet.
Here’s what I did. I read up until about the last ten pages. Then I stopped, and, operating purely by intuitive drive, I waited a couple of days. I let it build up. I imagined how the novel could end in various ways, and what could be in store for the heartbreaking Charlie, although I think I already knew. I guessed at the last paragraph, sentence, word. And I also thought about what it would feel like for me: the end of something that seemed so important. What would change for me after the last page? Would anything change? How would I feel? I’d never experienced this kind of immersion before, and couldn’t understand how something could weave itself so intensely into my consciousness, and then just…end.
Finally, I considered where and how I wanted this experience to take place. I wanted to curate it, the finishing of the novel, because it felt vital to my person that I do so. I decided that the best, most obviously appropriate place, would be my closet, closed and locked, where I could cocoon myself inside with the book and let whatever transformation that was to take place, take place. And so I read the end of Flowers for Algernon, after school one day, tucked into that cocoon, crying into my sleeves, quietly and hard.
Thus, the tradition: whenever I’m nearing the end of a novel, I start to imagine how I’d like to finish it. Sometimes I need a cocoon, but sometimes it’s more fitting to finish it on a bus, in a park, in bed, some place I’ve never been, some place with a view. It needs to be ceremonial, and the ceremony needs to fit my experience of the novel.
Today I finished Matthew Sharpe’s You Were Wrong. I’d been stalling. I didn’t want it to end. It sat on my desk, pages away from completion, for two days. And then this morning, after a particularly poor and too-short sleep, I got out of bed, grabbed it, and returned to bed. I turned up the space heater, made a pillow-and-blanket nest, and in my cranky, wretched, Saturday morning stupor, I finished it. (If you’ve read the novel, you’ll understand why my exhausted, feeling-like-I-just-got-beat-up state of being this morning was perfect.)
And now commence that other enduring readerly tradition of mine: feeling utterly dejected, unable to conceive of reading anything good ever again, because what I’ve just finished was so good, so integrable and complete and perfectly rendered, that starting anything else, at the beginning of anywhere else, seems literally stupid.
I remember feeling this hopelessness, however inchoately, as a nine-year-old in my closet. And a fifteen-year-old on the scratchy grass in my backyard (White Oleander). And a twenty-year-old at a coffee shop in rural Maryland (Wonder Boys). And a twenty-two-year-old at a desk in an empty classroom at Concordia University (The Secret History), and so many more.
I remember all of them. Which means there’s hope.