“Even in mundane regions of everyday life, endings are more problematic than beginnings”

Even in mundane regions of everyday life, endings are more problematic than beginnings. The sociologists Harvey Sacks and Emanuel Schegloff, in an exhaustive study of telephone conversations called “Opening Up Closings,” pay great attention to the thorny “components of terminal exchanges.” As with Brautigan’s novel, there is typically not just one ending but a stream of “preclosings” and “possible preclosings.” As Schegloff once told me, there typically comes a point during a conversation when one person will say something like, “So,” probably with what Schegloff called downward-intonation contours. This is a signal for a possible closing. But the other party has to play along. This may trigger a desire in the other to get something in before the impending close. As Schegloff and Sacks put it: “The opening that a possible preclosing makes for an unmentioned mentionable may thus result in much more ensuing talk than the initial mentionable that is inserted.” In plain English, the attempt to wind down the conversation may only ratchet it up. As Schegloff summed it all up to me, “You have to work up to goodbye.”

Endings are like the close of a great river, when every snaking bend has been traversed, when every tributary has emptied its contents into the main flow, all brusquely channeled together, depositing the reader into the silty bay of remembering (many psychological experiments have found that our overall ratings of experiences are strongly influenced by their endings). As the Italian scholar Giuliana Adamo notes, “If the narrative strategies of the beginning assure the reader’s passage from the real world to the fictional one, the closing strategies prepare the reader’s transition from the novelistic universe to daily life.”

Tom Vanderbilt, “Inconclusion”, The New York Times Magazine (10 August 2014), 47.