On Ending Polyphonic Novels
On Ending Polyphonic Novels
by Rachel King
I write multivoiced fiction, a technique also known as writing polyphonically, from the musical technique polyphony, where two or more melodies are played at once. However, in writing, unlike in music, different voices (melodies) cannot speak (be played) simultaneously. Sometimes I wonder: even if I’ve given equal weight to multiple voices throughout my novel, by ending on one voice, am I de facto elevating this voice? How can I conclude polyphonically, maintaining that no one character holds more of the truth than the others?
Many polyphonic novelists conclude with an omniscient narrator. Omniscience speaks from outside of everyone, refusing to give one character the final words. For example, although Richard Russo and Virginia Woolf drop into many characters’ minds throughout Empire Falls and The Years, he and she end in omniscience: in the former, a river washes away a dead body and an alive cat; in the latter, a risen sun illuminates sky and houses. These natural images, a part of the world in the novel but outside of the characters, remind the reader that many aspects of a novel exist beyond characterization.
Like omniscience—though more subjectively—dreams move the reader away from a character. Just above My Head by James Baldwin and No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy alternate between a first-person narrator and scenes in third person. The first-person narrators, Hall and Bell, spend entire sections reflecting on justice, race, sex, and many other topics. In Hall and Bell’s final dreams, they are thinking of these same issues, and their loved ones, but in vaguely metaphoric images, not linearly. A dream comes from a character’s thoughts but also, sometimes mystically, moves beyond that character’s thoughts—an apt ending for the kind of novel where one character does not possess the whole truth.
Because polyphony demands the interaction of various voices, it makes sense some polyphonic novels would end in dialogue. When a character speaks while in the same space as one or many others, that character invites a response, and confirms the many voices in the room. “Come in Mrs. Brown,” Clarissa says at the end of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. “Everything’s ready.” And what will Mrs. Brown say? And what will the party be like? The reader doesn’t know but she can imagine. She knows these voices will dialogue, continuing to confuse and/or challenge each other. At the end of Williams Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Pa introduces his new wife to his children: “Meet Mrs. Bundren.” And because the reader has heard the children’s voices throughout, he imagines the children’s various responses.
As I Lay Dying also ends with the spotlight on a minor character, another technique that reminds the reader that multiple perspectives exist. The appearance of Pa’s new wife provides the potential for a new voice/new truth outside of the familiar voices/truths. Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, a feud novel between two brothers, doesn’t end with either brother—or, for that matter, with the wife of one and the lover of the other, who is more or less telling the story. The two brothers are running logs down the river and the wife/lover is leaving town, while Jenny, a local prostitute, tells a client her real name. By ending in this minor character’s voice, Kesey insinuates that her voice is as valid as any other’s.
Some novelists, perhaps to mimic the musical technique of polyphony, unite the main characters at the end. Two Girls Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill concludes with the two narrators holding each other. “Her body against me was like a phrase of music,” the narrator says in the final paragraph, where two touching bodies become a visual representation of two simultaneous melodies. In the final lines of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, two of the Karamazov brothers and a group of boys are united in both body and voice: they walk hand in hand and shout, “Hurray for Karamazov!” By ending on different voices speaking the same words at once, Dostoevsky formally imitates different melodies being played simultaneously.
Not all polyphonic novels maintain polyphony through the final paragraphs. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, a novel that interweaves many different points of view throughout, has a one-voiced ending: Levin, in a space all alone, muses on the meaningfulness of life. Because Tolstoy places Levin’s thoughts in such a prominent place, the reader wonders: Is Levin the most important character? Does Tolstoy want the reader to agree with Levin’s ideas? Carson McCullers, who also ends The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter on one of many voices, defends this choice: her final narrator is, according to her notes, the most “disinterested” of the narrators; and unlike Tolstoy, she doesn’t conclude with this narrator’s life philosophy, but with a less didactic approach that hints toward omniscience: on him awaiting the morning sun. Because McCullers ultimately, though briefly, ends on a natural image, not on any one point of view, a reader’s final thoughts focus beyond character.
I encourage you to examine the polyphonic novels on your own shelf. Do they end with one of the above techniques or with another gesture that confirms that the world has multiple voices? Or, like Anna Karenina, do they end with a pronouncement of moral clarity through one character’s voice? Then examine your own multivoiced novel or narrative. Do you retain the possibility of many voices up until the final words?
RACHEL KING is a writer and editor who lives in her hometown, Portland, Oregon. Most recently her stories and poems have appeared in Flyway, the Concho River Review, Ashland Creek Press’ Among Animals 2anthology, and Offcourse. www.booksrachelking.com