The End: Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings is a collection of fifteen stories inspired by fifteen paintings depicting 'the end' by Nicolas Ruston. It is commissioned and curated by Ashley Stokes and is published on September 1, 2016 by Unthank Books, London and Norwich.
This review was first published in Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts Vol.4 No.1 (February 2016)
By Jude Gerald Lopez
Before the science, the experiments, observatories and the hordes of data we swim in today, before the noise and talk of celestial explosions, infinite time, finite experience, when everything began, we figured it would someday, slowly yet surely fade away and end or may be even start something or lead to something, an event, a realm, an experience much better or even far greater. The idea of the end has always loomed large, haunted our memory, shaped our purpose and stopped us many a time from mucking around. For the infinity of the skies and the constant expansion of our galaxies have always reminded us of the finite nature of our existence.
‘The End: Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings’ inspired by The End Paintings by Nicolas Ruston, can be considered to be many things. They are unique narratives that have resulted from varied experiences and realities. They are narratives in dialogue with the reader, with one another, and with the paintings that prompted their existence. What ultimately results is an experience which does not limit itself to the purely linguistic or visual. The compilation of text and image, of narratives infused in time, visuals that depict space, narratives that create space and visuals that depict text, rightly creates a reality. ‘The End, Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings’ thus becomes an organic space of interaction where elements talk and complement each other and succeed in producing texts from images. They derive the temporal from the spatial.
All the fifteen stories that are part of the book try to understand the many aspects of what the end is, or can do. These narratives become sub texts in this context and showcase instances in experience and time that let you travel through the nuances of various elements in the short-story form. Ruston’s cinemascope paintings that resemble end scenes from movies from an era gone by, followed by stories that each lead to an end, once again force you to question the linearity of time and experience. The form of each text (combination of the painting and narrative unique to it) forces you to think whether one is being taken through the text backwards, by showing the end credits and then exploring the events that led to the credits by moving backwards in time.
Tania Hershman’s ‘Loose Ends’ initiates the reader into this conversation between fifteen paintings and fifteen stories. The narrative is unique and meditated and employs different styles of delivery that indicate an implicit understanding of the inevitability of an end. ‘Loose Ends’ to me was a dialogue on closure, by a narrative that exhibits reflexivity and ponders over the various possible dimensions of an end. The form reiterates a disjointed experience of time as the narrative unfolds yet holds it together with the exceptional ease that juxtaposes the mundane with the overwhelming nature of the end.
The final story in the collection, ‘Nowhere Nothing Fuck-UP’ by UV Ray, also uses the form to emphasize the content presented in the narrative. The story speaks of the overwhelming presence of the mundane, shrouded in routine, which hangs over our daily lives. “Everything is transitory and in the end we all succumb to the final meaningless ultimatum of our own personal armageddon”, as concluded by the protagonist who shares glimpses into his life’s occurrences and interactions with others. The absence of full stops in the story once again exemplifies the dialogue between form and content and the nature of how meaning is created.
Angela Readman’s ‘The Slyest of Foxes’ sheds light on the events that take place in the life of Alice. The narrative starts off from a point of conflict. The gun shot in the story becomes a marker of time as the narrative moves backward, recounting events that led to the present and then forward. This element of foregrounding makes you question, which instance in the narrative was the end. Was it the fate sealing gun shot that occurs in multiple temporal instances, or was it the end of the story in itself? The significance of memory and the process of recollection as a significant element in the narrative was also remarkably captured by AJ Ashworth in ‘Harbour Lights’. Didier dreams of the past, and the narrative progresses in a manner elusive of time. Moments of recollection are interrupted by the dissonant realities of the present. The end in ‘Harbour Lights’ is an interesting take on its nature, as it explores the possibilities of a new beginning within the grim corridors of time’s finale.
When the vet finally puts Fred to sleep, easing the pain he has been going through, we are once again made aware of the grim choices life many a time presents to us. In ‘Coup De Grace’ by Ailsa Cox, death is something that is implicitly present right from the start yet the characters as well as the reader, to a large extent, tend to maintain a state of denial because of the emotional strings that the tale pulls by the dialogue between the family. The inevitability of death is once again the focal point in ‘Perturbation’ by Gordon Collins. An overpowering anxiety that looms large in daily life haunts this tale. The accident scene that kills Jude’s mother becomes a defining movement in the narrative and a turning point in each characters life. The events that occur to both Jude and her father reiterate the idea of inevitability beautifully through a persuasive and engaging tale.
The stunning white motorcycle Ariel in David Rose’s ‘Ariel’ is a paradoxical symbol, reflecting the protagonist’s aspirations that starts getting compromised as the narrative progresses. “Keith is always a world ahead” becomes a reference that resonates in the mind of the protagonist throughout the narrative. ‘Ariel’ makes you reflect on who really cheated and defied death. On the one hand we see Keith living life to the fullest and on the other (at the end of the story) we see the protagonist who realizes he has more years of ‘frantic pedaling’ ahead.
‘Chaconne in G Minor’ by Zoe Lambert is a highly meditated narrative that merges intricacies of music and philosophizes the nature of grief. The instances in which the protagonist fails to play the Chaconne at her mother’s funeral becomes a marker that signifies the overwhelming nature of death and the grief it results. “Music is the story of harmony being pulled apart and rebuilt then end is implicit in the beginning” summarizes the progress of events and sheds light on the expressive nature of music.
‘But What Happens After’ by Jonathan Taylor tells the tale of a war veteran trying to bring back normalcy to his life only to be haunted by the memories of his past. The story also ponders over the unending nature of things. Events and lives end yet their ends serve the role of a new beginning. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony becomes a focal point of this philosophical debate with the protagonist’s fiancée stating that the symphony’s abrupt and hurried end makes her feel that something lies ahead while he is being adamant that a finite end exists in all matters. This becomes the most striking dialogue on the nature of existence and the idea of an ‘end’.
Sarah Dobbs’ “Burning the Ants’ uses stylistic elements and creates a narrative that pans out like a motion picture. The story revolves around a pair of twins, Emma and Joanie. With an unfortunate twist of events Emma is paralyzed and Joanie tries to become more and more like her sister, and as the narrative unravels identities are blurred. The act of burning ants when they were children becomes a symbol of conflict in each character. Another story which strongly relies on a central image is Aiden O’Reilly’s ‘Crow’. The story discusses various converging realities. The crow being a key motif in the tale acts as a distant overseer of events. It portrays the relationship between Josephine and her mother as mutually conflicting yet comforting for both.
‘Souls’ by Michael Crossan is a distinct tale that portrays the past catching up to the present and employs a style that becomes rather surreal at multiple instances in the narrative. Kazimiers Kapka is a man with a new name and identity. A former military officer, he assumes a new identity in order to survive. The hotel that they arrive in by chance plays out to be a nightmare come alive as the story unfolds. One of the most interesting aspects of this tale is that it shows how death catches up with you and becomes an ‘effect’ of ‘causes’ previously instigated. Tim Sykes’ ‘The Sense of an Ending’ portrays a series of events in the life of Vanya, the revolutionary atmosphere striving for change, the May Day festivities and the chance meeting of Grushova. As the events progress, it is interesting to see how subtle sub-plots arise. The log book for me remains one such symbol that is literally is dialogue with the story and the overall theme of an ending. In a way, the abrupt end of the story subverts and challenges the notion of the end.
The end has meant a lot of different things to different people. Ashely Stokes’ ‘Decompression Chamber’ is an interesting take on how one understands the end. The protagonist and his friend Marysia are on a round, knocking on urban doors seeking help for a relief effort for a flood in Bangladesh. As they continue on their quest they are met with a wide array of responses, from the dismal sceptics to the outright nasty. In the end they reach a house of people who have abandoned their materialistic possessions and await the arrival of a messiah-like figure whom they call the Exarch. The juxtaposition between the go-goers and the cult that has accepted the end creates a powerful image in the story.
Dan Powell’s ‘All the TVs in Town’ takes the dialogue between Ruston’s work and his own to a new level. The narrative employs a dark dystopic setting that is humorous, surreal and haunting. The story foregrounds the painting as it becomes a key marker that directs the plot of the narrative. The central character in the story is haunted by TV screens that tell her that something has ended. Ruston’s painting in this story does not become a reference point or a prompt but a main character in it.
The process of reading this collection was exhilarating to say the least. The narratives are in dialogue with one another and this interaction creates a further layer of meaning to excavate. Another interesting aspect of this project which lets the visual and the textual merge is the way form and craft are treated in each of the stories. After reading the collection cover to cover, neither the paintings nor the stories remain individual texts to me. ‘The End, Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings’ is rather a space for dialogue and artistic expression, which blurs the subtle line we have imagined for ages to distinguish one medium from the other.
Jude Gerald Lopez is an aspiring writer who has finished working on his novel When Lines Blur. He also writes short stories and poems and has been published in Efiction India Magazine, Decades Review and Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts. He maintains a blog and also contributes to publications on Medium.