Earlier this year I watched the film No Country for Old Men for the first time after two friends told me they would be interested in my opinion on its ending. They had disagreed, not about what had happened, or what it meant, but simply about whether or not it was a fair way to end a story. It got me thinking about the kind of endings I admired in my favourite books, and the kind of endings I aspire to achieve in my writing.
So, in case you're not familiar with the ending of No Country for Old Men, essentially the climax that the story appears to be building towards just doesn't happen.
Here is my genuine reaction to the ending as Chigurh limps away from that sudden car accident and Sheriff Bell sits at his dining room table telling his wife about the dream he just had. At first, I was disappointed. I was invested in the film and felt like the rug had been whipped out from under me. Two hours later, I loved it.
The ending is jarring because it’s not how we’re used to seeing stories end. We are familiar enough with Chekhov's gun to feel that lack of resolution quite deeply when the story ends and the rifle is still hanging on the wall untouched. It can feel disappointing. It can feel like the story has betrayed us.
Stories pose questions. What is going on here? Will they be okay? Who is that gun going to shoot? And sometimes endings are designed to satisfy, answering the questions posed along the way with a denouement that leaves no string unattached. Endings that allow you to leave as easily as you came in. But what if the ending isn't designed to satisfy? What if it is trying to do something else? What if the story doesn't want to let you leave quietly? What if the whole point is to pull the rug out from under you?
Would Kafka's The Trial have been a better novel if in the closing chapter we found out exactly what Josef K had done? I don't think so. If the point of The Trial is that we don't know what Josef K is accused of, then we have to be ready for not finding out. If the question is the whole point, what value does an answer offer? What if during the story the question you think the novel is asking gets quietly put to one side and replaced with another? What if What is going on here? gets replaced with How do you feel about all this? That's a more interesting question, isn't it? It is ambiguity that allows for introspection. Stories are at their very best when they ask questions, and I would suggest that they are at their didactic worst when they presume to answer them.
No Country for Old Men opens by asking one question and closes by answering a different one, and somewhere between those two things is the space for us to find something of our own.