Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Importance Of What Happens Next

The longest book that I've ever read is The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien. The single-volume edition clocks in over a 1,100 pages. I tried to read it once when I was late in my elementary school years, shortly after reading and re-reading The Hobbit, but it was just too long. And, there was too much going on. At least, for the sort of little kid that I was. Every plot point had a back story and every character came from somewhere and went somewhere else. Nothing was transient and without context. You were thoroughly convinced that if Tolkien had the time he would have written through the life story of virtually ever character who he mentioned even fleetingly (actually, he pretty much tried to). When I returned to the book during college, this richness and complexity was precisely what made me mildly obsessed with the book for a brief spell. I've since read it four times and even took a course "The Philosophy of Tolkien" during the first semester of my senior year, just as The Return of the King was being released in movie theaters.

But, I digress. When I was mature enough (in other words, anyone who doesn't like LOTR is just immature...right?) to appreciate Tolkien's life's work I did so largely for it's breadth and depth. The story was epic and the characters well drawn for certain, but the best aspect of the trilogy was that it was complete. Which is why it consumed the entire writing career of its author. I'd really never read anything like it. I'd read books that were more artful or thought provoking or more...whatever, but nothing like it. And, I was a dorky kid who read a lot of books. For fun.

For me, the best way to show how complete a world it was that Tolkien created is to take a look at the conclusion of "Return of the King," the third part of the trilogy. The story climaxes with the main character tossing the titular ring into a volcano, which vanquished all of the bad guys. At that moment the good guys had won. The bad guys lost. The war was over. And the world was saved. Damsels were to be married and kings were to be crowned. Most books/films would have just ended then and there. Jerry Bruckheimer would have had Frodo and Sam (the two characters at the volcano) high-five and then one of them would have made an "I'm getting too old for this shit" remark and we'd be done. Fade to black. Roll credits.

I know several people who would have liked the novel (and the film) to end that way. They claim the stuff at the end was boring and unnecessary. They claim the story would be the same if it ended in Mordor (the place where the volcano was). But they are wrong. The Lord of the Rings would be less real and a lesser work if it just ended following its climax. It wouldn't be complete. Because what happens next matters. In life, in literature and especially in sport. Tolkien knew this and followed all of his characters through what happened next. He followed them home. Because in life the hardest part of any large event (like saving the world) is picking up the pieces afterward. If a character is so wounded that he or she can't move on successfully then doesn't that reality drastically affect the nature of their victory? Most books/films centered around any action-packed climax ignore the aftermath. There is no falling action or denouement. Tolkien provides these things and is a legend for it. Perhaps he was sensitive to this because he was writing in a postwar England were "victorious" London was all ash, rubble and poverty.

The fact that the main characters get back to their home after being gone for so long and find it totally overrun and fucked up is important. Learning that the main-est character is fractured beyond repair by his experiences is crucial. His realization that he has to leave behind the place he gave everything to save unalterably changes the way a reader thinks of everything that he did in the proceeding thousand pages. The falling action and denouement/resolution of a story can be more important, albeit less exciting, than the climax. And at the very least, those two elements of a story can place the action of the climax into a context that is more meaningful. Such context is arguably more important in sports than in literature. Because there can be value in ambiguity at the end of a novel. There is no ambiguity at the end of a game or a season. There is a boxscore.

Even though The Lord of the Rings would still be hanging around if the last fifty pages had been excised from the manuscript by an editor at Allen & Unwin there is no way that Bill Buckner's error in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series would be widely remembered today if the Red Sox hadn't blown the 3-0 lead they had heading into the sixth inning of Game 7. If the Red Sox win that Game 7 then nobody remembers Buckner. What happens next changes what happened before it. That's why Johan Santana's brilliant "season-saving" three-hit shutout against the Marlins on the second-to-last day of the 2008 regular season is meaningless. If the Mets won the following day then Johan's gem would have gone down in franchise history as one of the biggest performances of all times. But, the Mets lost the next day so the game doesn't really mean a thing.

And this is why the Knicks win over the Celtics on Sunday was rendered meaningless when they lost to the woeful Oklahoma City Thunder last night. The Knicks victory over the NBA's best team needs to be disregarded. Because the Knicks lost their next game to the worst team, by record, in the NBA and they lost badly. They trailed by 23 points at one point, which is more points than Oklahoma City has led in a game this season. The Thunder had won just four games heading into last night (while losing 30) and had not won a single game by more then 8 points. Yet they were able to get up 23 on the Knicks. This was a must-win for the Knicks if they were going to show that the spectacular effort against Boston was anything more than an aberration.

But there was no win. Just an inexcusable loss. All of the optimism of Sunday was washed away in a baptism of suck last night. The Knicks were listless in the early going against an energized StolenSonics club. The Knicks forced shots and relied on the 3-ball. They chased guys on defense who already had the ball rather than actively denying the ball and getting hands and arms into passing lanes. It was an unmitigated disaster. At the half, MSG play-by-play man Mike Breen summed it up: "Playing hard. Sometimes it's that simple. Sunday against the Celtics the Knicks played harder than the Celtics. Here tonight, clearly, the Thunder are playing harder than the Knicks."

It makes no difference the Knicks closed the deficit and gave themselves an opportunity to win in the fourth quarter. In fact, all the unfinished comeback does is highlight how bad self-inflicted the wounds of the first half were. The Knicks didn't play hard. Or smart. They didn't play at all like they did on Sunday, proving that they fundamentally do not understand what it takes to be winners even if they are capable of beating anyone on any given Sunday.

And, yes. I'm fully aware that writing about the importance of what happens next in understanding what just happened after games 31 and 32 of an 82-game season is a fundamentally flawed exercise. But, I did it anyway. Try not to worry about it. I clearly didn't.