Perhaps you suspect you are about to read about F. Scott Fitzgerald. Good guess, but no. I will write about that incomparable work soon, but here I am going to write about a book I fell in love with when I was fourteen years old–William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. Anyone who knows me, knew this would be the first American book I would talk about, especially when discussing endings. Consider this your SPOILER ALERT–I am going to talk about the ending, and I’m going to discuss it in detail. Stop reading if you want to read the book first. I mean it. Go back and read my entry about the limits of physical space instead.
So…it begins, “This is my favorite book in all the world though I have never read it.” What follows is a fictional description of the beginning of his reading life. One assumes this is the story of William Goldman, but it’s not, not really. It’s an exploration of how the life of a person can be changed by a great story. The narrator describes a book by an author named S. Morgenstern. The tone of the opening is so hip, so casual, so funny, it feels autobiographical, but it really isn’t autobiographical. There is no such author as S. Morgenstern. I figured this out when I first read the book because of some structural elements Goldman includes to prove this is the work of an American author in the pages after the opening frame.
Still, I know more than one person who was fooled by this frame and went looking for the “unabridged version.” One of these souls was so mortified by the experience she still holds a blood grudge with the book. So be it.
The book is really a treatise on the kinds of stories Goldman finds most compelling. He really did his most famous and successful and (arguably) most artful writing in screen plays. He wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He wrote Marathon Man. He wrote All the President’s Men and The Ghost and the Darkness. These are all great stories, and what do they have in common? Epic greatness! Even if the subject is epic TERRIBLE greatness, it’s still greatness, and that’s where he shines as a writer. Princess Bride is full of EPIC GREATNESS–the most beautiful woman, the strongest giant, the evilest count, the greatest swordsman in the history of the world.
By the way, that throws into light one of his finest gifts–epic lines. Inigo Montoya goes around saying, “You killed my father. Prepare to die.” No reader can forget that. The same effect is all over his screen plays. “Is it safe?” “Follow the money.” “Who are those guys?”
Throughout the book Goldman makes arguments about what works in narrative. He argues against subtle irony (though he uses it). It argues against excessive description (though his uses it). Finally he presents a discussion, a detailed one, about what makes a great ending. He presents three. The first he presents is romantic and sentimental, a riff on, “And they lived happily ever after.” The second plays with unresolved doom, which has its own dark appeal. The third the narrator refers to as realistic, that these folks were great, and they had a good time, but things still slid down hill as they are bound to do with all of us. He ends the book the way a great lecture ends, with a great closing statement.
“I mean, I really do think that love is the best thing in the world, except for cough drops. But I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.”
The first time I read the book, I got to that last line, and then I turned to the first page and started reading it again, immediately. That’s how much I learned from and enjoyed that book. It’s one of MY books, a book that influenced me, that played to my strengths and began to teach me how to minimize my weaknesses.
If you must read it, see the movie first. The movie is fine, and fun, but it’s just a fun little movie. It’s not a movie that teaches writers how to think, how to compose, how to edit. That’s what the book does.