Famous last words

A post over at Condalmo led me further into the book-o-blog-o-sphere to the Now What blog, where I discovered a fun little piece of book news – a proposed collection of the 100 Best Last Lines from Novels, created by the American Book Review (the same group that thought up the 100 Best First Lines from Novels, a fun read if you have the time.)

Though the list won’t show up until January 2008, I look forward to it. The list should be interesting. More than that, it will be educational. Writing that last line isn’t easy, and the list will serve as a testament in the difficulty of the task.

Now, I know nothing about how an author decides to end a book – if a book slowly fizzles out as an ending is naturally devised or if there is a grand plan to end in a bang – wrapping every loose end up and delivering several rounds of blistering prose. I do know that writing an ending to a simple, sappy blog post about nothing is difficult enough – I can’t imagine developing an ending to a 600-page masterpiece.

When you think about it, there’s a lot of pressure there. Really, that last line serves as the author’s last chance to make an impression. They are the last words a reader will read before delving into synopsis and discussion and postscripts and the like. Everything rides on the story, sure, but nothing ends without the final line’s say. And a classic book, just like a championship basketball team, needs to be strong and steady until the final end, keeping the naysayers at bay and running away with the win.

Of course, with a list of this magnitude, I was bound to think of my own. Will any of my favorites end up on the list? Will I have even read more than five of the books? Will I recognize any of the epitaphs as ground-breaking sentences in my somewhat meager reading experience?

Why wait to see? Why not just pick some of my own?

Okay. I will.

According to the rules, “A novel’s final line will usually consist of a single sentence, but not always.” I advanced this rule a little, if only to add a tiny bit of context into what is really the final scene, not the final line.

My personal favorites are dredged from my current collection. I scanned the last pages of the books I’ve read that I’m still in possession of, and found that many of the last lines are, on their own, rather incomplete. However, I did find some favorites – some lines that were both chilling and memorable – at least, memorable enough that I recognized them when I read them for the second time.

And once I had narrowed it down to five, I realized that they came from two distinct times in my reading history – my “the world as it will be” angsty high school days, where Animal Farm and The Jungle butted heads for my young, slowly forming political mind; and my current fiction literature revival period, where I’m rediscovering everything I passed over in college.

So with that, here’s my current five:

“We shall bear down the opposition, we shall sweep it before us – and Chicago will be ours! Chicago will be ours! CHICAGO WILL BE OURS!”
– Upton Sinclair, The Jungle

“Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
– George Orwell, 1984

“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens were they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”
– Cormac McCarthy, The Road

All good – all leaving an indelible image burned into the reader’s mind and all just as memorable as the novel that preceded it.

My two favorites, however, are dark, yet hopeful – phrases of death (or near death) that actually shine a clear light on the protagonist, serving as not just an ending, but a release from the shadows of their pain and fear and trials.

The first comes from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

“The door of the lighthouse was ajar. They pushed it open and walked into a shuttered twilight. Through an archway on the further side of the room they could see the bottom of the staircase that led up to the higher floors. Just under the crown of the arch dangled a pair of feet.

‘Mr Savage!’

Slowly, very slowly, like two unhurried compass needles, the feet turned towards the right; north, north-east, east, south-east, south, south-south-west; then paused, and, after a few seconds, turned as unhurriedly back towards the left. South-south-west, south, south-east, east . . .”
– Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

The second comes from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead – which actually also has one of my favorite opening lines:

“I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old.”

So it’s only natural that it this beautiful line, which I had the honor of hearing Robinson read herself from memory at last year’s South Dakota Festival of Books, serves as a beautiful bookend with one of my favorite ending lines – a plea to a son that is ready to grow up and take on the world to live free and life safe.

“I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I will pray you find a way to be useful.

I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep”
– Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

And because there’s no chance of topping those tonight, I’ll leave you with your thoughts.

This was lovingly handwritten on July 16th, 2007