Friday, September 23, 2011

The End by Salvatore Scibona

I expected to like The End by Salvatore Scibona. It was a National Book Award finalist. The paperback edition comes with laudatory reviews:

"The End is a throwback modernist novel. Scibona's subject is the meaning of place, time, consciousness, memory and, above all, language. Think not only Faulkner, but also T.S. Eliot, Virginia Wolf, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce." —The Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Engulfing. Entangled. Fate-laden. Flinty. Dry-eyed. Memento meets Augie March. Didion meets Hitchcock. Serpentine. Alien. American. Ohioan. McCarthyite (Cormic). Bellowed (Saul)." —Esquire

"Set in an exquisitely rendered Italian immigrant community in early twentieth century Ohio and does not open up so much as catch and slowly reel in...The title itself points overtly to the novel's heart: The final chapters carry more than their share of emotional heft." —Los Angeles Times

I'll never know about those final chapters because I gave up around page 200. This is one of those (fortunately few) times when you wonder if the reviewers are talking about the same book you are holding.

True, individual sentences are remarkable and wonderful. Examples chosen at random: "She came from Lazio; however, her enunciation of the Italian language was barren of regional influence and pitiless, as though each word were a butterfly she was shooting out of the air with a pistol." (p24) "She loved him. His suffering and shame (he had little schooling, and the accent of his English was inept, and he desired a son with every breath; he was thirty-three) were almost invisible and therefore were to her mysterious, perhaps infinite, and he approached, wanting her and no one else." (p109) "The vineyard under snowfall looked like a sheet of paper on which a dingle word had been typed, and typed again, and again, and again; until the ink in the ribbon had failed and the word, at first so distinct, could hardly be read." (p187)

But Scibona plays with time moving backward and forward with no clear reason. Characters appear and disappear. We are given pronouns with no clear identifications. After reading—plowing through—two thirds of the book, I could not tell you clearly what it's about. Who most of these people are. Or what any of them want.

And I have a personal problem: The book purports to be set in Elephant Park, the Italian community in Cleveland, Ohio. I grew up in Cleveland, and to my knowledge there is no Elephant Park; there is (or was in the 1950s when the book is set) a Little Italy between Mayfield Road and Cedar Hill, and there is enough internal evidence to suggest this is what Scibona is writing about. But why play games with the reader? Why invent street names? He calls the Public Square the Public Square, but then calls the Terminal Tower on the square (at the time I believe the tallest building between New York City and Chicago) the Erie Station Tower. Why?

Once into the book, I did not believe in the characters, their motivations, their personalities, or their histories. The fine writing became cloying, and I became impatient with whatever Scibona was trying to express. Which, I'm afraid I have to admit, I never understood.


  1. Scibona’s work in "The End" is exceptional. A poignant masterpiece! Those having even a hint of moral fiber will agree. Surely, not for the faint of heart. It deserves praise and respect as was poured into every written word over the years up and until its conclusion. Sure, it is a strong read; but, not difficult. Rather, it is written with Spirit, from within one's soul. The fact that Wood does not “like The End” speaks volumes. I suggest Wood take another crack at this and give it another read; but, this time read it to THE END. You just might get it the second time around. Better you do that than to contribute anymore of your benighted reviews. Surprisingly, you write that you are “a professional writer, an author, and a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.” Did you ever think holding that title just may have created a hint of narcissism in you? Wood, your only other excuse would be your age. Maybe it is time you sat back and did more reading and less writing at this point in your life. I know I for one would appreciate it if you did. Oh, and about your “personal problem” with The End? Well folks, I think that just about sums it up! It's PERSONAL.
    Thou shall not covet!!!

  2. Thank you for the comment. I am delighted that you found "The End" a masterpiece. I found it unreadable. That, as someone said, is what makes horse races.

    I'm not sure I understand, however, how abusing me personally builds your case for the excellence of "The End." Of course my opinion is personal; whose is not?

    But I suppose this post means that kimbalina is not going to buy and enjoy my novel.

    1. Dear Mr. Wood: I just came across your review of Scibona's "The End". You have no idea the immense relief I experienced when I read that I am not only the only one baffled and disappointed in this work. And I really did try hard to like it! To be honest with you, I went on line to discover what exactly happened. Certain things I was able to surmise on my own, but mostly I was left just scratching my head. Like you, I too am highly qualified as a writer, and I like to think of myself as an intelligent, discerning reader but I had to slog through The End. Yes, there were sections where the writing was beautifully expressive, but as you said, it did become cloying, as if he was trying too hard. He came across as trying to implement every creative writing technique he had ever studied, and by golly, he was going to force it into that novel, willy nilly. I came across one blurb that mentioned a murder in this novel - I can't believe I missed it!I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that you and I are on the same page regarding The End.