Does Life Ever Write the Final Chapter?

Did Lee Harvey Oswald murder a President?

I have heard it argued for as long as I’ve been writing.

Does art imitate life?
Or does life imitate art.

Now let me take that one step farther.

Do novels and life have anything in common?

On the surface, they have a lot.

Both novels and life have characters. Some get along, and some don’t. They have conflicts and disappointments and frustrations and numerous pages of grief and sadness.

A novel is all about love, hate, power, greed, jealousy, ambition, and redemption.

And so is life.

But that’s where it ends, and one primary difference raises its ugly head.

A novel has a final chapter, that last confrontation between good and evil where puzzles are solved, questions are answered, mysteries are resolved, people live happily ever after or go their separate ways, still resolute in their own decisions. Suspects are acquitted or shipped off to prison.

We know what happens and why it happened.

Life, unfortunately, is not always summed up at the end.

On Sunday, I wrote a blog about my days with the mother of the lone gunman accused to assassinating President John F. Kennedy. After almost fifty years, the case is still tainted with controversy and conspiracy theories. Did Lee Harvey pull the trigger? Was it the man on the grassy knoll? Did someone fire the fatal shots from a manhole in the middle of the street? Was the hit ordered by Russia, by the CIA, by the Mob?

We still don’t know for sure.

Who hired John Wilkes Booth to kill Lincoln?

And that takes me back to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Was the murder ordered by Southerners intent on exacting their measure of revenge after a long and brutal Civil War? Or was he gunned down at the request of the Secretary of War who was angry because Lincoln wanted to unite the country again? The Secretary was demanding that the South be treated as vanquished foes. John Wilkes Booth, from all accounts, fired the shot, but was he really killed, or did he escape? There are historians in Granbury, Texas, who swear that Booth rode into town during the 1870s and tended bar under the name of St. John. But he drank a lot, quoted long passages of Shakespeare, said he had been an actor, performed one-man shows, and privately admitted to being Booth.

We still don’t know for sure.

Amelia Earhart was the sweetheart of the skies. But she vanished during a flight around the world, and no word was ever heard of her again. Explorers still search for traces of the ill-fated flight and occasionally think they have found some relic on some remote island.  But they come home disillusioned.

And we still don’t know for sure what happened to her.

Children are missing. Their pictures are plastered on milk cartons. They walked down the street on day, and suddenly they don’t exist anymore.

A soldier never comes home from Vietnam.

A husband never comes home from work.

A high school junior walks into a classroom and pulls a pistol from his book bag and shoots as many as he can before someone shoots him.

A neighbor next door walks out into the backyard, sits beside the pool in a lawn chair, downs a jigger of bourbon, and places .38 caliber bullet in his brain.

And we are left to wonder: Why? Why? Why?

And we never know why.

Life is a cruel and terrible author.

Life doesn’t write the final chapter.

Life simply writes: The End.

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  • Caleb, this is a really fantastic post. History and our lives are filled with mysteries to which there is no clear answer. We often don’t know what happens next. I might be an oddball, but sometimes I like for my films and literature to reflect this fact. When it is done well, I like for a film or book to leave me wondering which choice the characters made or how their lives will progress.

    • Great thoughts, Reese. Maybe novels should reflect life instead of tying everything into a neat, tidy, little package. Wondering about what happened can be more intriguing than knowing what happened.

  • You have stumbled upon my love of historical fiction. I get to speculate on the final chapters that life keeps secret.

    • That’s why I like writing in the past. As you say, we can unlock the secret anyway we see fit.

  • Great post, Caleb! It inspired some questions in my own mind, for sure. I wonder if humanity’s love of a neatly packaged, fully resolved, novel or story has contributed to our tendency to be blind to truth…or possibly vice versa. Since truth can often be damned ugly and upsetting, do we gravitate to stories with happy endings? In reverse, do we process fear of the unknown through the catharsis of a shocking horror story? So many questions!

  • Great post, Caleb. I will go out on a limb here and say that one of the things that I love about novels is the completion of the circle. By this I don’t mean that I want a book to oversimplify life. A book presents the tiniest sliver of life, but gives it a rhythm and a sense of meaning. The ending may leave us unfulfilled, but it is an ending nevertheless. I think of the Old Man and the Sea. There are more questions about the human predicament than happy endings in Hemingway. But the story still has its arc. Maybe that is why people like series so much. They don’t want just one ending. They want a bunch of them.

    • You have touched on the magic of serials. Every chapter has an ending.

  • Kelly

    Excellent post, very thought provoking. I have to say, not having a resolution of whatever my life is/was supposedly about is one of those things that bothers me about death. Being dead and not really knowing what that truly consists of till we get there is bad enough without this not knowing if the life preceding it actually made sense or not.

    • Kelly: It is common to think back and wonder if the road you traveled was the one you should have taken. You say that bothers you about death. It shouldn’t. Two weeks before my father died at the age of 92, he told me: “I’m about to take a trip, and I’m looking forward to the journey.” It may be that death is just the next fork in the road. It may not be end. It may be the beginning.