To hear Louise Glück tell it, even the most distant goodbyes cut deep.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, or someone like her, exists at the center of “A Work of Fiction.” In that short piece, just a paragraph or so in length, Glück stares sad-eyed into the vacuum left by a book’s ending.
The stories we absorb are meant to be threads, not terminuses. They bind plots and people together, making neighbor-love seem like a story we’ve heard somewhere before even as so many pages sit unwritten.
“As I turned over the last page, after many nights, a wave of sorrow enveloped me,” she writes. “Where had they all gone, these people who had seemed so real?”
The speaker steps into the equal blackness of the night for a cigarette’s consolation. No doubt its warmth stills her; it also silently accents her isolation, its glow “like a fire lit by a survivor.”
“But who would see this light, this small dot among the infinite stars?” she asks. Certainly not those she left on the page. As the cigarette burns down, she senses it disappearing—not unlike the story itself—somewhere into her being.
“How small it was, how brief,” she writes. “Brief, brief, but inside me now, which the stars could never be.”
The scenes I live out are less romantic, but the sentiment stretches from Glück’s world into my own. I know what it is to miss someone who lives in the space between a writer’s imagination and my own, true men and women of letters who cease when the final period is placed.
Growing up, I experienced sincere bereavement when a TV show faded to black for the last time or a movie’s credits rolled. When That ‘70s Show took its bow, pangs of melancholy attended the recognition that I would not be able to follow these characters forward into the future. The final refrain of a movie like That Thing You Do sounded out my sadness at not having another moment to spend in the company of Guy and Faye.
This sense of lack traveled from the screen to the page as my relationship with literature deepened. In recent years, I grieved the end of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. Acute pain accompanied the knowledge that there were no more miles to go—hard as they were—with Fonny and Tish, no more time to live with them between the dizzy light of their love and the cold New York concrete beneath their feet.
Just a few more minutes to shake some sense into the protagonist of Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities; a chance to watch Jojo and Kayla grow up beyond the end of Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing; another conversation with Don Gately, the drug counselor in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
The emptiness that attends the final open-and-shut of these books has little to do with the closure—or cracks of further light—the author leaves behind. Just a few cases find me wanting to interrupt or change a character’s odyssey; I simply crave a few more pages with people whose pain and ecstasy feels like my own.
The best literature leaves us looking not for conventional character types, but similar traces of love, loneliness, and disorientation in the people who move around us.
In a great work of fiction, we find the outline of what it means to rejoice and mourn with those who do the same. If we are left with any comfort at these stories’ ends, it comes as they train our eyes to see similar characters in our everyday lives. The imaginary people we miss live on in real faces we encounter on the bus, at church, in the grocery store or a doctor’s waiting room.
The best literature leaves us looking not for conventional character types, but similar traces of love, loneliness, and disorientation in the people who move around us. Rather than shake a fist at my favorite authors, I need to thank them. The steps I take toward loving my neighbor often begin with loving fictional characters as myself.
I long to love my neighbors well, to draw from natural reservoirs of kindness and generosity. But what I imagine and what I muster often are two different things. I fail in word and deed, withholding affirmation and acts of mercy for fear of tripping over my own two feet.
My compass appears broken; it either rests or spins wildly, completing the same circles at a dangerous rate of speed. I lack the sense of direction and perception necessary to recognize the arc of someone’s story, then enter that story with grace. In a work of fiction, the door opens for me. The author lays out all I need to see, know and wrestle with someone created out of ink and white space. If only it were so easy for characters built with flesh and blood.
The nights I spend turning pages before turning out the light extend chances to practice reading between the lines of a life and seeing someone as they really are. I pray the loss I feel works its way down my spine and into my feet so I might lose myself in someone else’s true story.
Time spent with a good book, in the company of its flawed and fertile characters, is never wasted. We are living out chapters within a great storybook; narrative connects us to something fundamentally human within. The stories we absorb are meant to be threads, not terminuses. They bind plots and people together, making neighbor-love seem like a story we’ve heard somewhere before even as so many pages sit unwritten.