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April 23, 2010


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I think the contemporary novel is probably the place to look for non-closure narratives, as it's far more acceptable there than with television. Take Infinite Jest, for example, which (coincidentally enough) ends on a note a female friend of mine dubbed as "narrative blue balls".

Similarly, while DeLillo's Underworld is really moving in the end, and really comes together and it has something resembling closure, I'm hesitant to call it that. It certainly doesn't resemble any kind of closure I've ever seen before. Charles Baxter's The Soul Thief is deliberately frustrating on that kind of level as well. And on and on.

I guess the questions for me are... why doesn't TV try this more often (and yeah yeah profit motive blah blah blah it's not like publishers are charitable foundations and i find that lazy thinking)? And what is the benefit in narrative art (which those drawings are not) of denying and frustrating the traditional desire for closure?

Anne Moore

First, thanks for bringing feminism to the forefront of this conversation, Ben--it goes without saying that the "biological" model for closure is based on masculine biology (which came up--as it were--in the comments section of Isaac's post as well). Why (besides the obvious answer that we're all perverts) are all our metaphors for stories--the Big O, narrative blue balls--based on sex, anyway? Maybe that's just the most interesting story...

And also, we're all perverts.

So the model for thinking about a different model of closure that works best for me ironically rises directly from the profit motive of television--I'm thinking of shows like Firefly or My So-Called Life that were canceled after a really promising season or two thus letting them live on forever in our memory as unsullied by the unavoidable disappointment of closure.

Just one more reason The Sopranos is so brilliant.

Ben Owen

Okay, I don't want to be a pedant (that's not true), but it's worth stating that TV actually does the most stable form of the unclosed narrative I've ever heard of--the soap opera. We're talking about quality art (I feel like one of those words ought to have scare quotes around it), and so soap operas are probably not up for consideration. But I realize even as I write this that I've never even seen an episode of an American soap opera. So I don't actually know. I take it on faith that they're bad, but it takes work for me to avoid something on television that completely. I think I've watch more golf than I have soaps. I have, however, seen hundreds upon hundreds of hours of British soaps (and when I was a kid Australian soaps too). Brit and US soaps are fundamentally different in their styles, but they still form a wonderful kind of shared content. Everybody always knows what's going on. My grandma and my stepfather both have an opinion. Eastenders goodness is not so much an aspect of the story (which is deliberately on a craft rather than an auteur model), but rather from what gets created outside the show. Many people have written about this too, I'm sure, and I hope some of them teach at Ohio State. But anyway, that's not really my point.

I think I had a point. Oh yes, it was about Anne's example of the closure-defeating nature of the cancelled quality show. I had never considered that at all--particularly odd given how much time I spend speaking with Anne about TV. But the more I think about it, the more I like about it. I had been working on the assumption that to frustrate closure a given piece of narrative art must continue forever, or act like it's going to (like the soap opera). But the cancelled show made me consider the root of closure's meaning.

It's a loan word from gestalt psychology, right? It means you get shown a shape with a piece missing and your brain fills in the missing piece, closing it. I don't know the theories behind it (I'm sure they've all sorts of important ramifications for comics, and the gutter--but I'll save that for another time). But if I take that as the model for narrative closure, then the idea is that closure can occur when the narrative provides enough information for the viewer (or reader, or whatever) to resolve the main questions suggested by the plot. The narrative can never completely close the question itself--but it allows the viewer to do it to his or her satisfaction. Does this sort of make sense? So closure's frustration occurs when the viewer has enough of a shape to suggest a larger shape, but not enough to actually complete it. Hence Firefly and My So-Called Life--little fragments of a larger shape, maddening but also intensely attractive in their openness. Taking Isaac's point, I feel like good novels do this too, although I don't think it's a recent phenomenon. Who said that one of the tests of a good novel was whether you could imagine the lives and stories of the characters going on after you finished the book? It may have been my freshman year English teacher Matthew Goldie, though someone else may have said it too.

Oh, and yes, closure, catharsis, the cut, the crop, and the gutter are all totally sexualized around the male orgasm. You only need to see Hot Tub Time Machine to understand that. I take herxanthikles point that there is a way of managing expectations--that viewers can be satisfied with a delay in their orgasmic release if they're told, up front, that that's what they'll be watching. But that seems like claim that relatively rarely made, outside of the world of soap operas and certain cartoon strips. Even novels may frustrate that release in all sorts of ways, but even that frustration is centered around the knowledge of what the reader feels should be there.


I'm not sure i totally understand the idea that a desire for closure is (a) gendered and (b) specifically masculine. I get that the traditional narrative structure makes a rather nice metaphor for the male experience of sexual pleasure (and vice versa) but I'm not sure I really get it beyond that, particularly since I don't see much evidence that female artists or audiences are more willing to go for non-closure narratives (I'm not including Soap Operas here simply because I think there's a difference between Finite Narratives that end without closure and Endless Narratives like Soaps-- which traditionally appeal to a female audience-- or mainstream comix franchises-- which traditionally appeal to a male one) . If anything, I see a lot of art that frustrates the desire for closure as being full of masculine posturing, i.e. "Are you MAN enough to deal with my lack of wrapping things up for you, or are you a wuss?!"

But then again, there's a lot of butch posturing around "difficult" or "thorny" or "not-traditionally-satisfying" art in general. (Both David Simon, who tried to end The Wire with too much closure and David Chase, who ended The Sopranos with too little, for example, do a lot of defensive butch posturing in interviews about their respective shows)

I'm not saying that I think it isn't gendered, I'm just saying I don't currently see it, beyond the idea that on some level everything is gendered. I should also note that I think it's important that we aren't saying that there's something wrong with wanting traditional closure. That because it might be gendered does not mean that, I dunno, you're a sexist if you like closure or something like that.


I'm not sure i totally understand the idea that a desire for closure is (a) gendered and (b) specifically masculine.

I respond to this on my blog. I'm going in a direction beyond the scope of this particular post, and I don't want to derail for too long.

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