Today I am marooning my book reading group in an imaginary lighthouse with nothing to read but a trio of books which are very much worth reading and have in common that they delay the punch line until the last possible moment. At a first reading, the final chapter, page, or word even, comes as a complete surprise and an aesthetic and literary satisfaction. No doubt you could add more books to this list but, first of all, read about my three choices.
William Faulkner wrote and published As I Lay Dying in 1930 and wonderfully, for a book he claimed to have written in six weeks and never changed a word, it very soon became accepted as a 20th century classic that has never been out of print. Faulkner is an American Southerner, culturally very different from the literary traditions of, for example, laid back Californians, Jewish New Yorkers, or, in a class by himself, Thomas Pynchon. He sets his stories in the fictional location of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, loosely based on his own Mississippi county of Lafayette.
Faulkner has an amazing fifteen different stream-of-consciousness narrators including the dying and later dead Addie Bundren. As the story opens, Addie, wife of Anse and matriarch of a poor white trash southern family, is on her way to death while her dysfunctional family adjust, or fail to adjust, to this inevitability. Outside her bedroom window, her carpenter son Cash is lovingly crafting his mother’s coffin. Two other sons reckon she will last until they get back from making a delivery but they have scarcely left before she dies. The women place Addie in her coffin backwards so that the widest part of the coffin allows the wedding dress she is buried in to remain unwrinkled. While Cash complains that this makes the carefully designed coffin unbalanced, her son Vardaman is so much disturbed by the fact that his mother is nailed up inside a box that he sneaks out and bores holes in the lid; two of which go through his mother’s face.
Addie has extracted a promise from Anse that she will be buried in Jefferson and it is the horrendous journey there, including getting across a flooded river, which leads to disaster piling on disaster. In the climax to the river scene, the wagon overturns, the mules drown and the coffin has to be rescued. Cash’s tools have to be dredged up from the river bed and his already damaged leg is broken a second time. They can’t afford medical treatment so Anse puts a concrete cast on it, leaving Cash in agony. Through a series of adventures and misadventures we learn that daughter Dewey Dell is pregnant and trying to procure an abortion. A pharmacy store clerk tricks her into sex pretending he will give her the necessary medication. At last they reach Jefferson and bury Adie and Anse takes the ten dollars Dewey Dell has been given to procure her abortion, and goes into town where he uses the money to get a set of false teeth and … and what? Despite the doom and gloom of this account, the book is an utterly compelling read and the total surprise comes in the very final sentence.
William Golding is well known as the author of Lord of the Flies and for his trilogy To the Ends of the Earth, but the story that you will be taking to your lighthouse is The Paper Men, published in 1984. To quote from Wikipedia’s succinct summary,
The protagonist in the novel is Wilfred Barclay, a curmudgeonly writer who has a drinking problem, a dead marriage, and the incurable itches of middle-aged lust. Barclay is irritated by a young professor, Rick Tucker, who is determined to write Barclay’s biography and is desperate to gain control of the writer’s personal papers. Tucker pursues Barclay across Europe and both men sacrifice relationships, self respect, and ultimately themselves in this lethal pursuit. The ending is both inevitable and shocking and exposes the desperation of the literary biographer and the determination of the subject to maintain control over the story of his own life.
The end does come as a literal and literary surprise and, as with the Faulkner, the denouement does not occur until not just the last sentence but the very last word.
The final member of this trio is a novel by the prolific and highly successful Agatha Christie whose novel The Mouse Trap seems to go on forever and forever in its stage version, still filling the theatre for more than 50 years. Like The Sound of Music, some people have been several times! However, the book I want to recommend is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in which Christie uses what would nowadays be called post-modernist techniques. It is a mystery that puts Hercule Poirot’s little grey cells to the test because there are, inevitably many potential suspects. He has as his assistant Dr James Sheppard, fulfilling the role later taken on by Captain Hastings, and it is the doctor who narrates the story as it unfolds through many twists and turns like a typical detective novel of the period, 1926, in which a large group of middle to upper class people, two policemen and a lawyer find themselves together at the moment when one of them, in this case Roger Ackroyd, is murdered.
What the Wikipedia article describes as the juxtaposition of two knowledge systems compares and contrasts two approaches to detection. “[In] the novel, Christie has laid side by side two modes of gathering of information and building of [hypotheses.] One is Poirot’s use of ratiocination, the other is the channel of gossiping, practised by almost all inhabitants of [the fictional village of] King’s Abbott, in particular, Caroline. While even Caroline is able to interpret certain situations correctly, Christie privileges scientific mode of investigation by unveiling the murderer through Poirot.”
The revelation of the killer’s identity produced appreciative surprise and the feeling of having been cheated in about equal measure. Any members of your book reading group who haven’t read it before are in for a treat, but if you have read it then you will enjoy waves of nostalgia as the story unfolds.