The most important parts of your book are the beginning and the ending. And the middle, of course. The middle is important. But I'm here to talk about beginnings and endings, as I am reading a book that mangled the Alpha and have just finished reading a book that dropped the Omega in the outfield.
The book that could not begin is P.D. James' Children of Men. I'm reading it not only for pleasure (sort of), but also because my next novel deals with a very serious threat to all of humanity and I wanted to see how she handled it. For those of you not familiar with the story, it concerns the sudden end of human fertility. It is set in an age where the youngest "child" is twenty-five and there is no prospect of new pregnancy or childbirth anywhere on Earth. Quite a premise. Major story potential! And yet, on audiobook, the first two hours are backstory. Until our pensive main character is visited by a Mysterious Woman there is no active story. And now I am more than two hours into it and I am still waiting for something significant and active to happen. Heck, I'm halfway through!
Don't do that. Hook the reader, make things happen, and then tell us how we got here. I am going to have to see the movie that was made of this book, because I think Hollywood may have made the ultimate criticism and changed the main character. I would have.
The book that could not end was Haruki Murakami's 1Q84. I'm actually somewhat cranky about this one. I really enjoy giant books on audio. I like that a book spans many of my daily walks, much housecleaning, and a couple of long drives to town and back. But I detect a minor, distressing trend in these tomes. It started with Roberto Bolano's 2666 (maybe it's a numerical title problem), which was thirty-six hours long. Murakami's effort is forty-seven hours. With both books, the end came and the impression was "wait, what?"
What happened to all those other characters? What happened to that threatening situation? What's the explanation for what was going on? What about the little people who crawled out of the mouth of the dead, blind goat?!?!? What were they? I am not making this up.
1Q84 had a very interesting mystery in the works. I was engaged, if slightly put off by the oddness of some elements (goat) and the sex scenes (the criticism this book has received along those lines is richly, richly deserved. But when you are twenty hours into a book and not to the halfway point, you feel committed. Besides, I wanted to know what happened to one character who was particularly interesting.
*SPOILERS* But don't read it anyway. Even the writing is not an instructive thing of beauty.
Well, she packed her stuff and left about five or six hours before the end and was never heard from again. And the main characters? This should carry a black box warning for writers, because it is about the worst thing a writer can do:
The main characters retraced the steps that brought one of them into this mysterious, dangerous alternate reality, and walked up out of it and back into the real world! Worse, this happened hours after the one character pondered whether it would work. Then they just wandered off to live happily ever after.
After forty-seven hours! I wanted to rend limbs!
I spoke to my sister, who studied Japanese at Harvard with one of the book's translators and lived in Japan for several years. She even worked for a Japanese company mentioned in the book. Her verdict? "Oh, yeah, that's Murakami. He does that."