Lost Hearts – Sandman Meditations

Endings are tough, especially in the realm of the Endless. “Lost Hearts” concludes The Doll’s House, but it’s also a waystation, a rest before another tale.

I’ve got to admit, this was my least favorite of the Doll’s House stories.  It felt too explicit, too explanatory, too determined to try to make us feel something for Rose and the other characters.

I would not be surprised if the fault were mine: I prefer cereal killers to vortices.  I never believed Dream would kill Rose, and so the suspense of the issue was not the suspense of wondering, “Will she survive?”, but rather the suspense of wondering what trick will let her live.  The trick arrives, Dream and Desire have a chat, and we end with an image that recalls “Tales in the Sand“.  All of this is well done, but it feels hollow to me, dutiful, as if everyone involved said, “Hey folks, time to wrap this one up,” and so they did.

The expository passages in the issue were what really bogged me down, and the bog was born from a bias: I have little patience for characters who explain things to each other.  I usually fail to enjoy mystery stories that end with the detective connecting all the dots for everyone.  If a character explains something on one page, I want them to explain the opposite on another page.  I’m a sucker for both ambiguity and dialectic.  (People tell me this is because I’m a Libra, and I believe them, though I don’t believe in astrology.)

Endings are tough.  Students are often taught, especially in high school, to write concluding paragraphs to their papers that sum up everything they’ve said.  I tell students not to do this in my classes, because I have no interest in reading what I’ve already read.  As a young high school teacher, I got in trouble for telling a class that the strategy many other teachers gave them — “Tell me what you’re going to tell me, tell it to me, tell me what you told me” — is a strategy that could have been designed by a drunk person, because who else thinks being told the same thing over and over is interesting?

I don’t mean to imply that “Lost Hearts” is full of stuff we already know.  It’s not.  It fleshes out the meaning of the vortex, it lets us know about Fiddler’s Green; it ties up most of the loose ends.  Perhaps because I find the tying of shoelaces tedious, I love loose ends.

“Lost Hearts” is one of the textiest stories in The Doll’s House.  It may not have the most words, but it feels full of the pesky things.  I imagine re-creating it all according to some arbitrary, Oulipian rule: remove all words with the letter E, for instance. The penultimate page would now have dialogue such as this:

DREAM: If you not of my kin…

DESIRE: But I am.

DREAM: You.  To.  This.  Of.  Of living.  NOT … know, in that … last living thing has … this … our task will…  And do not … if anything … us.  Toys … dolls.  And you — and … and … poor — should … that.

DESIRE: I — I don’t…

DREAM: I am afraid that you don’t. It reads like a Tarzan movie written by Samuel Beckett, I know, but there’s something appealing in making Dream inarticulate.  Maybe, for whatever reason, I just want to put him back in a cage.

Endings are tough.  Critics, writers, and teachers will often speak of endings that are satisfying, as if satisfaction is the highest praise.  I’m not convinced, though I’m also sure I’ve used the terminology myself in that way at some point or another.  The endings that really stick with me, though, are endings that deny satisfaction — endings that disturb, endings that nag, endings that shatter the sense of all that came before.  Is the desire for such endings pathological or aesthetic?  I don’t know.

In Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm, a young woman, Lyndall, tells her sister Em a story.  It ends:

“He died there in that island; he never got away.”

“It is rather a nice story,” said Em, “but the end is sad.”

“It is a terrible, hateful ending,” said the little teller of the story, leaning forward on her folded arms, “and the worst is, it is true. I have noticed,” added the child very deliberately, “that it is only the made-up stories that end nicely; the true ones all end so.”

All true stories end in death.  Ending earlier is the privilege of fiction.

Immortality, too, is the privilege of fiction.  Death can be a character in such stories, a beautiful young woman, kin to Dream and Desire.  Made-up stories can end nicely; made-up stories can be satisfying.

“We are their toys,” Dream says of the living things.  “Their dolls, if you will.”  Desire doesn’t feel this.  Desire lives in a Threshold of self, not a doll’s house.  Dream’s is a world of many mansions.

Rose, who has lived in at least one of those mansions, hides in her room and tells stories of the story, trying to give it happy endings.  She can’t quite accomplish that for herself, though.  The best she can come up with is, “And then she woke up,” which she admits is the sort of ending she hates.  But after all she’s been through, it’s the most satisfying: “I suppose there are worse endings,” she says of it.  And so there are, just as, though “Lost Hearts” has not worked its way into my heart, I can recognize that it could have been far worse, and that it winds things down with skill and symmetry.  It is satisfying.

But endings should be tough.

Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.