On Giving Away the Ending

IMG_0879Half way through “Among the Ten Thousand Things,” a superbly written novel of middle-aged infidelity, author Julia Pierpont fast-forwards several decades and reveals what has happened to each of the central characters. This takes place in a 12-page interlude, after which the narrative picks up where it had left off. Justifying this breach of structural convention, Pierpont writes, “The end is never a surprise. People say, Don’t tell me, Don’t spoil it, and then later they say, If I’d only known.”

The drama in the first half of the book concerns whether Deb, a college dance teacher and former professional ballerina, will leave her long-philandering husband, Jack, an artist. Their two children have become aware of Jack’s affair with a young sycophant, something Deb had known about for months, but had convinced herself she could get over. Now she is forced to decide whether teaching her children about the value of commitment and self-worth and dignity is worth disrupting her own comfortable life.

The fast-forward answers the question of whether Deb and Jack stay married. And for me, it presented a problem. After reading it, I lost interest in finishing the book. I put it down and didn’t pick it up again for over a week.

I’m glad I did, because it is a pleasure to read Pierpont. She is strongest and most cutting when in the milieus of Jack and Deb’s work. One of my favorite sequences takes place in the second half of the book, when Jack visits an Arizona college that has commissioned a sculpture from him. Forced to attend a dingy reception in his honor with grad students and faculty, Jack knows, “A reception was an evaluation he hadn’t wanted, his career laid out in rows of weak, sweet supermarket wine, prepoured a third of the way, his worth measured in cheapie plastic cups on a tablecloth made of hospital gown…He neighed every time, on cue.”

Yet the majority of the latter portion of the novel, after the fast-forward, takes place in coastal Rhode Island, where Deb and the children have escaped Jack’s perfidy to a rundown vacation home. Deb is ostensibly deciding whether to stay with Jack, but we, the readers, already know the choice she will make. These scenes, though expertly crafted, were too familiar: teenage Simon’s assignations with a lunch counter waitress, 11-year old Kay’s anger at her warring parents, Deb’s flirtation with her husband’s friend. This is the stuff of ten thousand other bourgeois narratives. I missed the sharpness of the scenes that took place in New York City, shaded by unrealized artistic ambition. In her twenties, Deb had been a corps member with the City Ballet, never ascending to soloist, and had used her first pregnancy as a way to gracefully let go of the career she had prepared for since childhood. Now, teaching a group of Barnard undergraduate dancers, she is wary: “To encourage them would feel like a lie, because really, she didn’t approve, wanted to whisper in their ears: Quit now. Better off spending time in economics or history, pre-med, pre-law, pre-anything. To watch them try depressed her.”

Unlike Deb, Jack seems to be an original and uniquely talented (though not totally successful) artist, which is one reason why Deb fell for him. Her struggle is realizing, as Pierpont memorably puts it, that how good someone is at admirable work does not necessarily correspond with how good they are as a human being — how worth loving and sacrificing for. This tension between admiration and commitment propels the plot, so while I admire Pierpont’s audacity in “giving away” the ending halfway through, I can’t ultimately support it. The book’s strongest themes recede in its second half and give way to a far less fascinating story.