Norwegian Wood (from movie)Yesterday morning, I finished reading Murakami’s Norwegian Wood.

It was raining, unusually cold for an August morning, and almost coal black. I couldn’t imagine a better morning to finish this particular book. I sat in silence for a good hour after closing the cover, thinking to myself. (Who else would I think to?) Beethoven was playing in the background. It colored all my thoughts for the rest of the day.

While reading, I suggested it to several people, and one of them asked me if I could explain the ending to her. She was looking for a sort of resolution that Murakami seems typically reticent to provide.

As a result, I’ve been thinking about resolutions. Well, I’ve been thinking about many things, but one of the threads is resolution. I’ll share my notes, and hope that you aren’t offended by “spoilers,” because personally, I could give a damn—any story worth reading is worth reading. It isn’t about the ending.

The idea of “spoilers” themselves gives us a starting point. There are certain expectations that most readers put on endings. It’s an unrealistic expectation, given the nature of life—often the endings that count the most seem to come unexpectedly, out of nowhere. You’re crossing the road thinking about the complications posed by the two women you love, and wham! a truck hits you. These endings resolve nothing.

My point is, endings and resolutions are not the same, and an ending doesn’t need to resolve anything. Something can end, people can drop out of our lives as if they had instead dropped off the face of a steep cliff. But there is no resolution. Similarly something can resolve, and in the process transform into something else, which is a way whereby an end can be turned into a beginning. The Death card in the Tarot is said to be a resolution, for instance. It isn’t necessarily an ending.

Now that we’ve got that straight, I’d like to return to Murakami’s ending for Norwegian Wood, and its lack of resolution.

I phoned Midori.

“I have to talk to you,” I said. “I have a million things to talk to you  about. A million things we have to talk about. All I want in this world is you. I want to see you and talk. I want the two of us to begin everything from the beginning.”

Midori responded with a long, long silence – the silence of all the  misty rain in the world falling on all the new-mown lawns of the world. Forehead pressed against the glass, I shut my eyes and waited.

At last, Midori’s quiet voice broke the silence: “Where are you now?”

Where was I now? Gripping the receiver, I raised my head and turned to see what lay beyond the phone box. Where was I now? I had no idea. No idea at  all. Where was this place? All that flashed into my eyes were the countless shapes of people walking by to nowhere. Again and again I  called out for Midori from the dead centre of this place that was no place.

Here the protagonist is calling Midori—the girl he has decided he wants to be with—and she is distant, but she does take his call, which reaches her as if over this great expanse. When I read it, it seemed as if the camera was pulling away at the end of a movie, and he’s just this little piece of jetsam floating in the ocean. The protagonist fades into a sea of people, no longer central, no longer even notable. Just a face, a dot, nothing at all. More notable, you never find out what Midori’s reply is. There is no resolution.

This seems to be a common element in Murakami’s stories, for instance in many short stories in The Elephant Vanishes, and it is a tendency that I personally find refreshing, given how much pressure I’ve been handed as an author to always resolve everything. When you don’t, some people accuse you of bad or sloppy plot-work, as if you simply forgot to resolve that which you intentionally left unresolved.

Another misconception that arises from this approach is that it is at all new. It has been one way of ending a piece of classical music since Beethoven, radical that he was, played games with the form. At the end of some Beethoven pieces, he ends on an unresolved chord.

Murakami is employing the same kind of ending. In fact, I could almost hear that repeated, lingering chord at the end of the Moonlight Sonata as I read those closing lines to Norwegian Wood.

This was one of the many things which in his time was considered incredibly controversial and original. We can’t hear Beethoven now, I mean, we can’t hear how revolutionary he was. We’re too used to it because he was so successful in changing Western music. Success can come along with its own form of curse, so that while he may be immortalized, the reasons that he’s been immortalized are in some ways obscured by the enormity of his success.

My point is this: we shouldn’t feel pressure to resolve our stories in any particular way. Our job is to find what a story wants to be and help nurture it. Some pieces may call for a classic resolution, or even an ironic twist on the classic resolution, like at the end of the 7th symphony 2nd movement, where the ending seems to be almost an ironic telegraph—“here is the ending you were expecting.”

But if the resolution to a story would require a new book, then give your reader a wall of mist, rather than that. You aren’t law-bound to provide a resolution. Midori’s answer, given across that immense expanse, is the beginning of a new story, not the ending of that one.

Not all calls are answered. Not all chords are resolved.


(By the way, a little bit of self-patronage: my novel Fallen Nation: Party At The World’s End was just published. I’m going to go buy myself a bottle of wine and think about beginnings, now.)


My daughter, Sierra, was seven when she read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It was summer of 2000 and I was hearing great things about the books, as the fourth in the series had just been released. I bought Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for my daughter, eager to get her involved in actual chapter books that didn’t have 14-point font and knowing that she was reading books far below her comprehension level. By Christmastime that year, Sierra had read the entire series.

“Read them, mom,” she insisted. “I think you’ll really like them.”

I wanted to, but one thing or another kept me from doing so. Finally, when Jim, my soon-to-be husband, read the first book and agreed that Sierra was onto something, I read it. Within a year, Jim and I had both read all four books as well.

Jim and I were married in June 2001 and Sierra was adopted into the family by the end of that year. I gave birth to my twin sons on Valentine’s Day 2002. Life went on. A long festering tension between Jim and Sierra developed, especially as she entered into adolescence. 9/11 happened. Distances grew.

At the end of Coen Bros family/existential drama A Serious Man, we leave our “hero” Larry Gopnik, having just 1) been awarded tenure and 2) changed a student’s grade in exchange for money, with 3) ominous but unclear news from his doctor, and 2) a son trying to pay back a thug but being chased down by a tornado.

In other words, it’s all loose ends. There is arguably some thematic resolution—that is, you can kind of say justice is being served (though only if you believe in a cruel kind of justice (which, given the Coen’s other films, one might suspect))—but the action is quite alive, still building, when the curtain drops.

And yet, and yet… And yet I knew exactly when it would end. I remember quite clearly inhaling sharply and feeling that perfect-ending tingle right before the screen went dark. How did they manage to create such an unconventional ending and at the same time signal to me, the viewer, that the ending was imminent?

If you’ve seen A Serious Man, what did you think of the end? If you haven’t seen the movie, does what I write above make sense with regard to any other movie you can think of? Mid-action, or in some other way surprising, ending that nonetheless feel perfectly timed?