Monday, October 24, 2011

Unlikeable characters vs. annoying characters

Last week on a flight back to Boston I devoured a novel, front to back, before we even landed. It's the ideal plane reading experience, but almost never works out for me. Either I'm not really that into the book I've brought and end up watching the terrible in-flight movie (which usually makes me cry), reading a trash mag and/or sleeping; or I'm into it but the flight's too short (which happened with The House of Mirth; I actually wished we could taxi longer).

This book -- True Things About Me by Deborah Kay Davies -- is narrated by an "unlikeable character." As I've said before, characters aren't your friends, and I like unlikeable characters. (I also like spelling "unlikeable" with two e's, though Blogger disagrees.) In some ways, the novel is similar to Veronica by Mary Gaitskill. Both narrators are sort of flimsy, flaky, passive women who get trampled on because they don't have the self-respect to stop it (or they actively like being treated like shit, however you want to put it). But I liked True Things About Me and I didn't like Veronica (wow, that was one of my first blog posts). Why? I think it's because the narrator in Veronica is more than unlikeable: She's annoying. She's humorless, and she's always lapsing into dull little monologues like this:
I wanted something to happen, but I didn't know what. I didn't have the ambition to be an important person or a star. My ambition was to live like music. I didn't think of it that way, but that's what I wanted; it seemed like that's what everybody wanted. I remember people walking around like they were wrapped in an invisible gauze of songs, one running into the next--songs about sex, pain, injustice, love, triumph, each song bursting with ideal characters that popped out and fell back as the person walked around the street or rode the bus. 
Or this:
I was proud, too; I knew I was doing something hard. Sometimes I was even happy. But another world was still with me, glowing and rippling like a dream of heaven deeper than the ocean. I could be studying or watching TV or unloading clothes from the washing machine when a memory would come like a heavy wave of dream rolling into life and threatening to break it open.
It's like, Shut up, lady. The narrator of TTAM, on the other hand (I can't remember her name, maybe it's never given?), may be basically a "stupid bitch," but she thinks in crisp, nuanced, observant, funny sentences even though the scenes being described are fuzzy, because she's essentially confused and unwell and delusional:
I went off to the loo, but really I was bored with the whole loo thing. It was like I was spending all my life in there. Still, I felt it was my space. There was someone in a cubicle, so I had to wait until they had done everything they had to do, which took ages. To pass the time I swished my hands around in a basin of cold water. Eventually the slow woman came out, adjusting her skirt, which is always so irritating. As she washed her hands, she looked at my bluish fingers floating in the water, and then at me in the mirror. Are you all right? she asked. Why? I said. Are you? What were you doing in there? Writing a love letter? 
As the novel goes on you watch her alienate all the kind and decent people in her life, who make her feel guilty for being involved with a complete asshole, until you feel completely alienated and frustrated yourself. It's a strange effect. Can you like a book that totally pisses you off? Yes, you can, as long as it makes you angry for the right reasons. 

John reviewed True Things About Me in Open Letters earlier this year: "it’s a tribute to Davies that she makes such an unlikely descent read so plausibly. This is largely because even as her narrator sees and does sad and fearful things, she never loses her sense of humor about herself." 


  1. I forgot that you disliked Veronica. I loved that book and teach it in my Literature and Identity class. And I'd agree that the narrator is maybe not the funniest as a character, but the book itself isn't entirely humorless, and the scene where Veronica says, "It's my show now," struck me as really funny (and angry and sad). Anyway, I look forward to reading True Things About Me.

  2. I thought the relationship between the two women was compelling and memorable, but the prose was a slog for me to get through.

  3. I've always been fascinated by narrator/protagonists who are contemptible. American Psycho comes to mind, although that book disgusted me. More recently I read Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser. The title character, Harry Flashman, is a racist, misogynistic, cowardly bully who bumbles and cowers his way into glory during the first British-Afghan war. He's a terrible person but he's funny and entertaining. And despite his successes, he suffers terribly for them, which is satisfying for the reader. Fraser wrote a very long series of books about the Flashman character, plumbing the depths of what it means to be a complete and total asshole.

  4. Being funny can make up for a lot of personality flaws, huh? I've been meaning for a long time to make a list of great unlikeable characters ...