In two of my four novels, readers know how the story will end.
In No-Accounts, one of the two protagonists is a gay man with AIDS. It’s 1985. Readers will remember that a diagnosis of AIDS in 1985 was a death warrant. So readers expect that the story will end with the death of one of the protagonists.
In Last of the Annamese, the story begins in Saigon in November 1974. Readers know that Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in April 1975. The ending is known at the beginning of the novel.
In my other two novels, Friendly Casualties and The Trion Syndrome, the ending of the story comes as a surprise. As a novelist, I was able to use suspense as one tool in the fictionist’s toolbox.
So do No-Accounts and Last of the Annamese work as novels? Readers tell me they do. Why?
My sense is the answer is twofold.
First, both novels do have suspense.
In No-Accounts¸ the questions are: will Peter, the gay man with AIDS, accept help from a conventional, straight, and rather slow-thinking “buddy”? Will Martin, the buddy, have the fortitude and generosity to stay with Peter to the end?
In Last of the Annamese, the question is: who will escape at the end? Will the two principal Vietnamese characters, Thanh and Tuyet, survive? Will the American characters understand that the end is at hand and flee?
But I believe that the success of all four novels springs from a different aspect: all four are literary fiction. I haven’t found a definition of literary fiction that I find satisfying. To me, literary fiction explores the human condition and how human beings cope with it. I’m deeply concerned with how we humans mate, bear our children, and face death. What values drive us? What are the priorities in human life? Can love and generosity overcome self-interest and the drive to acquire? What is courage? What is love? What is honor?
Annamese illustrates my approach in a way that is more easily explained than in my other novels. The story is told from multiple points of view. Each major character is dominated by goals and desires radically different from the others. Each has to make decisions about his or her own survival that has both costs and payoffs. To my way of thinking, each of the characters demonstrates nobility and ultimately decides with honor how to deal with the cataclysmic ending, the fall of Saigon.
I write for a number of reasons addressed at various places in this blog, but the most important is to delve into the human condition and offer the reader ways of thinking and examples of how people cope with the life we are given.
That’s why, to me, fiction is great art.