Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

It Will End with Us by Sam Savage

Reviewed by Eric Severn

Sam Savage. It Will End with Us. Coffee House Press.

Sam Savage’s latest novel, It Will End with Us, reads as part narrative and part philosophical meditation on memory and language. The novel’s first-person narrator, Eve, is haunted by the singular childhood event of her mother’s disintegrating sanity. Eve is an elderly woman, living with friends, and part of the narration foregrounds Eve, in the present, writing about her childhood in an effort to better understand it. Yet it’s the very act of writing that muddies the events she tries to understand.

As the first sentence suggests, this is an inherently meta-conceit: “I wasn’t going to begin again, having stopped, apparently, and started up again, foolishly, too many times already, attempting to write about my family and Spring Hope and myself there with them and later there without them.” The self-referential structure of the sentence draws attention to the narrator narrating, but it also highlights an important irony and tension that drives much of the novel. In claiming she will not begin again, Eve, of course, is beginning again. The literal act of the narrator narrating her refusal to write is writing, and it suggests Eve’s hope of understanding her past through writing, despite so much of the narrative, like the first sentence, disavowing that possibility.

Memoir narration often pivots on this very tension. Any self-aware narrator telling a story in past tense must confront the gulf that separates how people represent their memories to themselves and the reality of the events that formed those memories, if there is, in fact, a difference. It Will End with Us certainly capitalizes on this tension, but it’s also getting at a deeper, distinctly literary question: given that language is always representation and symbol, is it even possible for the writer to wholly depict his or her experience without distorting it?

This question concerned many symbolist poets in the early twentieth century, and it’s no wonder that Eve constantly makes reference to Baudelaire, Mallarm√©, and Poe. However, there is a distinct difference between Eve and the poets so often mentioned throughout the novel. The symbolist poet exercises a degree of agency in crafting an aesthetic that is hermitically sealed by the poet’s private symbols. At its extreme this can lead to a solipsistic retreat from reality and acceptance of the primacy of personal representation; nonetheless, it still registers as an aesthetic choice the poet makes. Conversely, Eve’s attempt to write her childhood as it actually happened indicates her battle to excavate experience from representation, and that it’s language itself and the representations language creates that have agency over the writer rather than its aesthetic opposite advanced by the symbolists.

The primary reason for this reversal, as Savage indicates with philosophical acumen, is that the private symbol is a myth. Only public representations are handed down through social engagement. Eve makes this clear when she laments that “a number of my early memories might actually belong to Thornton or even to Edward [her two brothers], and I just took them over, ingested them, so to speak, after hearing one or the other talking about them.” This is the post-modern predicament rearticulated: Eve is the passive subject scripted with public representation. And the intellectual drama of the novel revolves around Eve’s Sisyphean battle to write her way out of this passivity. Sisyphean because she admits that both recollection and writing distort the events one recalls and because she simultaneously refuses to accept this truth by continuing to write.

Of course, a novel has to engage more than philosophical drama. It must also present a compelling, human narrative. For the most part, Savage pulls this off. Through a fractured catalogue of memories, Eve’s childhood, her mother’s disintegrating sanity, and the at-times backward environment in which Eve grew up, Savage presents an evocative cast of characters. The power of these characters and their purchase on the imagination arises more from the white space between scenes than the scenes themselves. Savage’s narrative technique draws on the principle that the heart of drama departs from what isn’t said rather than what is. As Eve’s memories unfold, she presents incidents stripped of explanation: “The time Edward and Thornton were fighting each other and Mama screamed at them to stop. . . . The time we climbed out of Edward’s bedroom window and sat on the porch roof. . . . The time Thornton dropped a metal trashcan loaded with bricks down the stairwell hoping to hit Edward.” The events themselves are intriguing, but it’s the desire to fill in the white space that draws the reader along. As narrative structure, this also mirrors one of the thematic conceits of the novel—constitutive of memory is the narrative constructed to link fragmentary images.

As these fragmentary images unfold in the novel, an especially compelling parallelism between Eve and her mother, Iris, begins to emerge. Like Eve, Iris wanted to write. And Iris’s sanity, like Eve’s, hinges on writing. As both writers “fail” to capture their ideal narrative, both become more and more unhinged, until Eve’s character uncannily approximates that of her mother. The irony is that through writing, Eve attempts to get closer to Iris. And while she fails to write her mother’s story accurately, she becomes more and more like her through that failure, bringing Eve closer to Iris than she realizes.          

This revelation signifies more than Eve’s myopia. It says something about art itself and the practice of writing. No matter how hard the writer tries, language will always distort the ideal he or she tries to capture. In this sense, the writer always fails. But in another sense, just as Eve gets closer to her mother by failing to write her correctly, the writer, perhaps, gets closer to his or her subject through the distortion and recreation of that subject. The trick is to recognize this when it happens.

The title of the novel aptly indicates this strange tension. It Will End with Us suggests that narratives are always, and never have been, reducible to the individual. There is a whole network of relationships that forge one’s memories and representations that will perhaps always stand between the events one wants to write about and the narrative one draws on to represent those events. Yes, this can seem disenchanting. But by refusing to give up, by continuing to write one’s story regardless—as Eve does—the writer recreates, and therefore adds to the stories we collectively tell about our past.

It Will End with Us isn’t a long novel, but it does require some patience. It’s a novel that lingers over ideas, sometimes at the cost of drama. But in the end, it’s a work that asks if the stories we tell are in fact our own or if they belong to the relationships that inform our lives. Certainly, every writer must grapple with this question, but so too must every individual trying to understand his or her past and place in it.