Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Unlikable Characters and All the Ways We Betray Each Other

So far, 2011 has been the year of unlikable characters in my fiction reading. I didn't plan it this way. And if the characters hadn't been so extremely repugnant, I might not have even noticed. But now I feel like one of my students. I want to howl, "Doesn't anybody write about anything HAPPY?!!"

If Louise Erdrich's book Shadow Tag hadn't ended up on The New York Times Notable Books of 2010, I might not have read it. When it first came out, I read the reviews which gave me enough of a sense of the plot that I thought, ooh, yuck. And now I've read the book, and I still say, "Ooh, yuck."

It's about a woman who's keeping multiple diaries to deceive her husband, who is a painter who specializes in painting her nude in variously compromising positions, in paintings that depict the mistreatment of Native Americans. This book could have been an interesting meditation on identity and how we construct it, and indeed, the book does often come back to that theme. But the two main characters are so repugnant, and they behave so brutally, that it's tough to read the book. There's not much in the characters to like. Their children are far more interesting, but they don't get much time.

My first book of the new year (and last book of the old year) was Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, which is also full of repugnant characters. But they're more well-rounded, which means we see their redeeming qualities, limited as some of them are. And the reader is rewarded with social satire and keen dissections of modern life and bits of truly funny writing.

I'm also reading Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey, which is also full of reprehensible characters. But I'm not reading that book for the characters. I'm reading it for the stunt, which bears more resemblance to music or drama improv, than a novel. Mason retells the plot of The Odyssey in any number of ways; for example, in one story, Achilles is a golem. It's intriguing and it appeals to my intellect, but I'm reading more to see what Mason will do next, not to see what happens.

I'm in the mood for something sunnier. It doesn't have to be uplifting. I don't need pablum. But I'm ready for different subject matter than all the ways that we betray each other. Perhaps I'll read Richard Powers' Generosity: An Enhancement. It's a work of a certain kind of science fiction, a work which asks how our lives might change if science could identify the genetic basis of happiness.

Will it betray me too? Perhaps. After all, novels aren't very interesting when everything is going swimmingly. No conflict, no plot, my beloved undergraduate English professor told us. My obnoxious, late adolescent self declared that oh yes you could too have a story with no conflict. She challenged me to find one. I've been searching ever since, and now, twenty-five years later, I'm willing to say that she was right.


Kevin Gibbons said...

I'm trying to see Achilles as a golem. Mm. Sounds interesting. I may have to get this book. The other two...I think might avoid.

Kathleen said...

If it does betray you, you might try Abide With Me, by Elizabeth Strout, very, very human and you get likable and unlikable characters side by side, sometimes in the same body, and get to have compassion for all!

Kristin said...

Kevin, the cool thing about the book is that each story is short, so if you hit one you don't like, it will be over soon.

Kathleen, I did read "Abide with Me" and enjoyed it very much. I'm always happy for suggestions.

Maybe it's time to reread one of my touchstone books, a Gail Godwin or a Marge Piercy. Hmmmm.

Kathleen said...

As I was leaving my comment, I thought, "Hmm, she's probably already read this!" My book group is now considering the next Gail Godwin. And I was waiting to read Home, by Marilynne Robinson, with them, but maybe they don't want to, so I'll read it on my own.