On finished novels

The novel often gives us that formal insight into the shape of someone’s life: we can see the beginning and the end of many fictional lives; their developments and errors; stasis and drift. Fiction does this in many ways—by sheer scope and size (the long, peopled novel, full of many lives, many beginnings and endings) but also by compression and brevity (the novella that radically compacts a single life, from start to finish, as in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” or Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams”). And partly by turning the present into the past: although we move forward through a story, the entire story is already complete—we hold it in our hands. In this sense, fiction, the great life-giver, also kills, not just because people often die in novels and stories but, more important, because, even if they don’t die, they have already happened. Fictional form is always a kind of death, in the way that Blanchot described actual life. “Was. We say he is, then suddenly he was, this terrible was.” 
- from Why? by James Wood, from The New Yorker