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This Is the End

Here it is, the least convincing lie ever told:

“. . . and they all lived happily ever after.”

Wait, you protest, that’s not a lie. That’s a fiction, it’s a tale, a fable. You know, the pudgy German kids get back from the woods safely and all; or the plain girl gets a makeover, goes to the ball and ultimately marries the prince or whatever. It’s not a lie, it’s a happy ending.

No it’s not. It’s not really even an ending at all. It’s like a caesura—it’s a poetic pause after which there should be more information. You don’t believe that those tots, left to die in the woods by a heartless mother and a complicit father, would return home to their now-repentant pop, find that their evil mother has died and feel therefore “all anxiety was at an end,” as the Grimms would have it. Or that from that point on “they lived in perfect happiness.” You don’t buy that: You know as well as I that there’s a book tour for Gretel and a convenience-store surveillance camera waiting for Hansel somewhere in the dark wood of their futures.

And we all know, in our hearts, that a marriage is no way to end a story. Cinderella’s troubles are changing, but they’re not disappearing. She’ll be firing off frustrated letters to advice columnists in no time, complaining about her hubby’s sense of entitlement. Eventually, she’ll have an affair with a passionate, though unschooled, wild man and run off to live in his yurt among the Maori, where she’ll be free to pursue her art—some craft or another that her royal spouse found cute but unimportant (central casting will tag Kate Hudson, Ben Affleck and Colin Farrell).

I’m not coming out against fairy tales—far from it. Fairy tales serve a purpose, as do the literally incredible, overly tidy and optimistic endings. According to the late child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, fairy tales serve to help children process emotional tensions and achieve personal integration by externalizing representations of competing id, ego and superego impulses. The stories appeal to the child at a preconscious level, suggesting to him in symbolic ways that his battling instincts can work together—as siblings of different temperaments often do in fable—to achieve a level of independence from tyrannical or overbearing parents (as all parents are eventually, in a child’s eyes). The often horrific fates of the step-parents in fairy tales, for example, allow a child to exercise a vengeance fantasy against an all-powerful (and unfairly powerful) parent figure, without having to deal with feelings of guilt or implied isolation from his actual protector. At the end of the story, the children are safe and together (in both the physical and the, like, spiritual sense, man), and the family unit is preserved. This is healthy.

But you’re a big boy now.

In entertainment meant for adults, these endings cloy—where they don’t insult. If you’re old enough to have a co-pay, better routes exist for you to pursue ego integration. Read fables, fairy tales, tall tales, myths if you like. They’re entertaining, and the awareness that the well-versed reader of fable gains of the cross-cultural reiteration of theme—the universality of the human struggle for independence and community—can be profound. But please take that happy-ever-after with a grain of salt, and keep in mind its purpose; please keep in mind that the happy-ever-after ending is the oral tradition’s version of checking under the bed for monsters.

I mean, go ahead, watch Pretty Woman if you must. But, lord, don’t form expectations—or allow expectations to be formed—on the happy-ever-after ending. It’s predicated on a lie: the lie that death isn’t coming for you as surely as it did for the witch, the vicious step-mother, the hobgoblin, the hoard of orcs, etc. You will grow old and/or sick and die. Or maybe you’ll be hit by a bus. Or eaten by snakes. Or you’ll fall down a well. And there are always accidents involving farm machinery, don’t forget about those. Oh, and drive-bys. And Ebola’s still around. And you just know that cell phones will be proven to cause some kind of horrible cancer.

So, wish for happy, no harm in that—though the odds may be against you. But the “ever after?” We know where that ends.

What, then, am I gonna do for kicks, you ask. Read only the obits? Have friends over for Snuff-Film Fridays? No, nothing so extreme. Just recalibrate your notion of the happy ending a tad. Read some Hemingway (yes, Hemingway), some Plath, some Carver. Read of death and sickness and confusion; work your way up to ennui. Counter your craving for shallow and happy with shots of desperation, failure and angst. The more desperate, the more completely failed, the angstier the better. Wallow for a while. Then remind yourself that these injured, fucked-up souls put it all down on the page, they wrestled it into shape for you before putting their mouths to the bottle or on the barrel, or their heads in the oven. They did heroes’ work.

This sounds a torturous regimen, but wait. When you’ve done all that, read Don Quixote, which has the happiest of all honest endings and the most honest of all happy endings. After his life of book-addled questing, of chivalrous delusion and harebrained adventuring, the Man of La Mancha, passes away quietly, restored to his senses. His friends mourn him, and eulogize him in verse:

The world as nothing he did prize,

For as a scarecrow in men’s eyes

He lived, and was their bugbear too;

And had the luck , with much ado,

To live a fool, and yet die wise.

To live a fool, and yet die wise. Like a hero. Good night, sweetheart.

—John Rodat

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