The Sense of Redemption

At the creative writing center where I volunteer, we engage children in writing fiction by presenting them with four basic tenets of a story: a main character, a sidekick, the main character’s greatest wish, and his or her biggest problem. The children compose the beginning of the story as a group and then create their own endings and grapple with how they want to solve the character’s problem. Without knowing it, these students are, in some small way, learning to write about redemption – of a character and the ensuing dilemma.

Redemption: It’s what allows us to look more closely, more admirably at something – a person, a town, a movie – that we may have earlier deemed uncomfortable, or maybe even repellent. To move from hopeless or helpless, to saved and restored is what differentiates redemption from “improvement.” If a happy – or happier – ending ensues, we feel that some sort of justice has prevailed. This movement from struggle to triumph guides politicians – which is why Rick Santorum references his coalminer grandfather while supporters cheer the grandson’s prominence. The phoenix-type story of victory also colors the revival of towns and cities lost to modernization and the economy. In February 2011, the New York Times Magazine profiled Braddock, Pennsylvania, a blighted town resurrected by a group of artists. The town’s motto? “Reinvention is the only option.” And this idea of rescue and repair is what drives the booming business of life coaching. We need the good guy to overcome and prevail.

Redemption: It’s also what we look for in literature and has been a barometer of a book’s success in the book clubs I’ve frequented. Wine is poured, crackers and cookies are grabbed from the table, and the act of imposing our own life and values begins in earnest as book club commences. Compare yourselves to the protagonist and the set of circumstances that he or she faces: Ready, set, go! Books that are generally well-received promote discussion. On occasion, however, a book that gets a thumbs down from a group of readers ushers in a slew of thoughts about how a character failed to live up to one’s expectations or refused to co-opt a cultural norm of moral “betterment.” In other words, there was nothing redemptive about a book’s set of characters or its plot.

Readers expect so much from their characters: a desire for them to be restored to a good nature and a protected life seem to transform the author’s words into gospel. When we are enveloped by a character – when a novelist is doing a good job of attaching the reader to his or her creations – our heart aches with theirs and wants them to recover. Even if the character fails to live big or really “make it” and still has sadness around his circumstance, we set the bar low and figure that any baseline improvement – or at least a character’s acceptance of her fate – is better than none. Books that fail to tidy up any aspect of the protagonist’s life have the potential to leave a reader cold.

But what happens when you’re truly engaged in a book, yet the denouement is just that – an ending that provokes a shoulder shrug and the thought that, at its core, life is really tedious and uninspiring? Redemptive is not a benign word. Nor is it subtle, and when applied to a work of fiction, I wonder if it’s asking too much.

“And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability.”

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, follows Tony Webster from secondary school to middle age. While nothing dramatically distressing happens to Tony – he does endure divorce, the suicide of an old friend who he had been out of touch with, and an adult daughter who flits in and out of his life – Barnes writes his protagonist not in a tragic light, but more with a broad brush of melancholy and weariness. Instead of questioning the subtle slights and hurts that have seemed to encompass his life, Tony accepts them as part of the aging process. He “get[s] on fine” with his daughter Susie. He still gets together regularly with his ex-wife, Margaret, and relies on her surety and clarity of purpose. And while he mourns the death of his former classmate (and the quest to retrieve part of his journal, which was bequeathed to him by the mother of a former girlfriend), Tony approaches the event with a matter-of-fact tenacity. He’s certainly not a charismatic person; or at least the glimpse that the author has given us doesn’t point toward a man full of passion. He, the narrator of his own story, says, “How few of us – we that remain – can say that we have done the same? We muddle along, we let life happen to us, we gradually build up a store of memories.”

Tony Webster isn’t on a murdering rampage, a drug binge, or a life of obvious self-destruction, and finding a point in this book where he embraces life and wants to do more than endure it is difficult. Barnes puts these words in Tony’s mind:

“Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that’s something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got.”

How does one improve upon general malaise or indifference?

Despite Tony’s constant ruminating about his life, he seems to view aging in a hands-off, resigned, and casual fashion. I liked The Sense of an Ending a lot, which confused me since no one in the book seemed to feel joy, pleasure, or even contentment. Instead of earning clarity or a concrete purpose, Tony seems to delve further into befuddled acquiescence of his future – in the novel, he doesn’t experience a grand redeeming event. What we, as readers, often desire is someone to announce life’s difficulties, and then embrace the great rewards and ecstasy that can be found one way or another. We yearn for redemption, however small, because we’re uncomfortable with others’ suffering.

Whether or not we deem a character “redemptive” has less to do with the actual characters, and more to do with the achievements of others that we hang our hopes on. When someone we view – whether in a book, or a stranger in real life – reaches the supposed glory of recognition, happiness, or success, that triumph draws us closer to our own goals. But that’s based on information we’ve been presented with. When others view us, what do they see? They see what we present, and they see it through their own lenses.

While it can be argued that The Sense of an Ending offers a realistic, non-air-brushed idea of life, maybe it is because that is all that Tony Webster and his author allow the reader to see. What we, as readers, forget is that a book doesn’t tell the whole story. Except for perhaps in Barnes’s mind and notebooks, Tony’s childhood, the entirety of his married life, and his time with his grandchildren, don’t exist. These hidden facets of his life remain unknown to us. Perhaps Tony threw himself on the ground after processing the news of his friend’s death. Or maybe, despite friendly appearances, his wife cruelly berated him during their marriage. We just don’t know. So how can we judge the character by the selected plot that the author has put forth? In fact, Barnes writes from Tony’s point of view, the following:

“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves.”

The 150-page text doesn’t tell a story of stereotypical redemption that we might hope for; Julian Barnes hasn’t embedded a 180-degree turnaround or even a glimmer of hope in his story. After all, the last paragraph of the book is this: “There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.” But the story itself can be redemptive because in some other, unknown dimension, that’s not all there is. We can take hope in the fact that our lives are more than “just the facts.” Although Tony feels “unrest,” one has to hope that rest may be found. I liked it precisely because “unrest” connotes that at some point, the converse must be true: there must be rest. In fact, Barnes’ title – The Sense of an Ending – implies that something is not quite finished, not quite ready to rest, even though we think it is.