Coitus Interruptus

There are so many ways to go wrong when writing a novel! One of the nastier ways to fail, I think, is to make an implicit promise to the reader and then not fulfill the promise. When the promise arises out of the emotional core of the story, the failure is all the more galling.

I’ve just finished reading Pompeii, by Robert Harris. It’s meticulously researched, beautifully written, and very suspenseful. And on the very last page, Harris fails. He pulls out without finishing what he started.

I’m pissed off.

The hero of the story is a young engineer named Attilius, who has rather unexpectedly found himself assigned to duty as the master of the aqueduct that supplies water to the towns around the Bay of Naples — Misenum, Puteoli, Naples itself, and of course Herculaneum and Pompeii. The flow of water from the aqueduct has suddenly slowed to a trickle, and it smells of sulfur. So he sets off around the flank of Vesuvius to find the problem and fix it.

You and I know what’s going to happen in less than 24 hours, but none of the characters in the story know. That’s a big part of the suspense.

And of course he meets a young woman and is attracted to her, and when the mountain blows up she’s trapped in Pompeii and he has to brave the falling pumice and clouds of incandescent gas to rescue her. You knew that was going to happen. It’s not a surprise, but Harris handles it deftly.

Along the way, we meet a couple of people and are present at a couple of incidents that are historically accurate. Pliny the Elder, who at the time was the admiral of the Roman fleet at Misenum, ventured out with a ship to try to rescue people, and died on the beach at Stabiae. That’s in the novel. Not historically documented but flawlessly accurate with respect to Roman culture is a subplot in which the young woman’s father, a rich former slave who is pretty much the boss of Pompeii, tries to bribe Attilius, fails, and decides to have him killed instead. The assassin stalks him to the peak of Vesuvius, right into the crater, and Attilius escapes only a couple of hours before Vesuvius blows its top.

Brilliant stuff, right? But here’s where it all goes south. Attilius has arrived at Stabiae with Pliny, and decides he’d rather die trying to rescue Corelia from Pompeii than live without her. Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. He barely knows her, but he told her to go back to Pompeii and obey her father without knowing the whole town was about to be buried under 20 feet of pumice. So he sort of has a moral obligation.

Rocks and ash are falling from the air. He makes it to Pompeii. He finds the girl. Survivors of the first phase of the eruption are wandering around in a daze. The girl’s father and his slaves start chasing the couple, plainly intending to kill Attilius. Attilius sees an incandescent cloud of gas rolling down the slope of Vesuvius toward the town. He and the girl run and climb into the roofed-over reservoir into which the aqueduct flows. We have seen this structure earlier in the story, so we know what’s going on. Attilius has in fact narrowly escaped being drowned in an underground portion of the aqueduct in an earlier scene, after he and his workmen went down into it through a manhole to make repairs.

A cloud of incandescent gas will roast your lungs in a flash — but if you’re in a tunnel that’s mostly full of water, you might have some chance of survival.

Are you with me so far? It’s a genuine happy ending, straight out of Hollywood. Everybody else dies, but against the greatest possible odds, in one of the most awful disasters in history, boy saves girl. Or … well, let’s find out. As we reach the very last page, we get this:

People who had fled from their homes on the eastern slopes of the mountain began to make a cautious return before nightfall, and many were the stories and rumors that circulated in the days that followed … [omitting some stories and rumors here] … Most persistent of all was the legend of a man and a woman who had emerged out of the earth itself at dusk on the day the eruption ended. They had tunneled underground like moles, it was said, for several miles, all the way from Pompeii, and had come up where the ground was clear, drenched in the life-giving waters of a subterranean river, which had given them its sacred protection. They were reported to have been seen walking together in the direction of the coast….

And that’s it. After that oblique description, the curtain falls. We don’t get to see them struggle along the underground aqueduct for miles in the dark. We don’t get to see their joy when they find a manhole cover that’s not weighed down with half a ton of pumice. We don’t get to see them smile at one another as he helps her up out of the aqueduct. We don’t get to see them holding hands as they stroll downhill toward the bay.

This is the sound of Robert Harris failing. He just had to be fucking coy about it. Satisfying the reader by actually showing the happy ending — maybe he skipped that lecture in the graduate-level course on creative writing. Or maybe some halfwit college professor convinced him that showing a happy ending would be cheap, that ambiguity is somehow a nobler goal toward which the author of great literature ought to strive. Or maybe his typewriter ribbon was running out of ink. Who knows?

If you want a gruesome lesson in how to destroy a terrific novel in a single page, buy this book and read it.

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