I finished New Amsterdam three days ago, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. I try to put it out of my mind, to focus on my current book, to think about something — anything — else, but no matter how hard I try, I keep coming back to it. Poking it, prodding it, talking about it, turning it over and over and trying to get some sense of closure, of understanding. This morning, it occurred to me:
I don’t get this way over books very often. I get emotional, certainly. I laugh, I love, I hate, I rage. But I don’t cry, almost never. The last time I remember crying over a book was when I read Where the Red Fern Grows in elementary school, and my mom came home and found me lying on the carpet, bawling. I might have cried over Bridge to Terabithia, too, but I’m not certain.
I don’t cry over books, but I very nearly cried over New Amsterdam.
In any case, this revelation got me thinking about the five stages of grief, and by golly, I’ve gone through every one of them but the last.
Denial — Oh my, yes. Lots of denial. I have been trying really hard to just pretend that the last ten pages don’t exist.
Anger — See my previous post. *grin*
Bargaining — I’ve been doing lots of this, too. From “Maybe if I talk to her, maybe if I just tell her how upset I am, she’ll understand. Maybe once she knows what she’s done, she’ll just say she’s sorry for it, that she wishes she could go back and change it, and then it will all be okay” to “Well fine. I am just going to create my own not-Jack character and stick him in my own book, and I will love him and treat him right and it won’t matter that Ms. Bear was such a meanie.”
Depression — Yep, that too, and it’s a large part of the reason that I’ve been trying to keep my mind off of it. Because inevitably, I come back to it and I think about it and I just get so sad. It makes me just want to curl up in bed and mope for days.
Acceptance — This one…this one I haven’t gotten to yet. I do hope I will. I hope I can get this damn book out of my brain and move on.
The thing I keep coming back to, the thing that keeps making me want to scream and cry and wail, is that it’s just so senseless. It seems almost random. I keep thinking, “It’s not like there was nothing they could have done to save him. It’s not like it had to happen.”
A comment on the Q&A post that Bear put up today helped me get a little bit of insight, a little bit of understanding. It helped me take one small step toward acceptance. She said, “You made me care, and then you made it hurt, and that’s the endless Sebastien theme.” And, you know, it is. And I can kind of get that. Putting us in Sebastien’s shoes, giving us a small taste of his eleven-hundred-plus years of loving and losing over and over and over and over again.
That’s the thing. I keep thinking maybe I can understand, maybe that, I can accept. And I keep thinking it, and then thinking, “But…“
But it didn’t make sense. But it’s so pointless. But it could have been done so many other ways, so many better ways. But there wasn’t a set-up for his death, it just happened, out of the blue. But we weren’t given a chance to prepare.
And then I sigh and think that Bear’s response to all of these protests would probably be, “Yeah, well. That’s life.”
And yeah, it is. People die for pointless, senseless reasons all the time. People go through life blithely taking for granted that everyone they love will still be there the next day. And then something happens, they turn around, they wake up, and suddenly one of those loved ones is gone, just like that. Out of the blue, no set-up, no chance to prepare for it. That’s life.
But New Amsterdam isn’t life. It doesn’t even pretend to be — it’s alternate history. It’s not life. It’s a story.
And that’s what I keep sticking on. I don’t remember who said it, but it makes me think of the quote, “The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.” And that, I think, is where Bear failed with New Amsterdam. Taken as a whole, it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t work.
(You should, of course, read this with a great big “IMO” tacked on to the end of everything I’m saying here. From the comments on Bear’s blog, I gather it worked just fine for a number of people. But it didn’t work for me, and I know I’m not the only one.)
It puts me in mind of another quote. I don’t know who this one came from either, and it should probably be considered more paraphrasis than direct quotation, but the gist of it is, “If someone gets shot by a gun in Act 3, then the audience had better see the gun lying in the drawer of the desk in Act 1.” And that’s why New Amsterdam’s ending didn’t work for me. We saw no gun. I knew from the beginning that something bad was going to happen, because Terra wailed when she finished the book, and I figured that could only mean that either something happened to Jack, or something happened to split Jack and Sebastien up. And even with those strong suspicions, even watching for it and waiting for it, a page before it actually happened, I still wasn’t sure. I still thought maybe, maybe I was wrong. Maybe I’d misinterpreted what Terra had been wailing about.
When a reader knows what’s coming and is searching desperately for any hint of its existence and it still takes her by surprise, you’re being too damn subtle.
From what I’ve read in Bear’s posts and comments, it seems like she’s trying for an Important Life Lesson sort of theme, in this ending1. It seems like she’s trying for something literary. And that, too, makes me think about that second quote. Because I didn’t think I was getting Literature when I picked this book up. I had no clue. For 95% of the book, it reads like any other commercial fantasy novel2. You can’t pull out a gun in Act 3 that wasn’t there in Act 1 and expect the audience to accept it, and you can’t tack a Tragic Ending onto a fantasy novel and expect to turn it into Literature.
That said, she did nearly bring me to tears, and three days later, I still can’t stop talking about her book. And that, at least, is impressive.
But it still doesn’t mean the ending works.
1Actually, she pretty much says that flat-out:
Rocks fall. People die. Life goes on.
Or: After bliss? The laundry.
2I don’t mean to suggest that it’s average. It is, as I said earlier, quite good. What I mean is that that seems to be the genre niche it fits itself into.