Saturday, September 7, 2013

in defense of nice characters and not being a Serious Reader

Since last posting, I have read:

Cold Wind, by C. J. Box. Not the greatest in his Wyoming game warden series. The scenery isn't given the usual loving descriptions, and there's not enough of the hero and far too much of his trained killer / gun nut / hiding from the evil government buddy, whom I hate anyway (as a woman, I'm clearly supposed to find him mysteriously sexy because he kills lots of people in extremely violent fashion and without remorse, which... um, no) and who in this one has 50% of the story devoted to him, and that story is all based on a "you killed my woman" revenge motive which reduces a previously-interesting female character to a plot point.

Then, without intending to, I read two books which were bizarrely similar: The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud, and The Crossing Places, by Elly Griffiths. They are completely different genres: Messud wrote a first-person-narrative, artistic-folks-in-Cambridge-Massachusetts, novel, and Griffiths wrote a murder mystery set on creepy marshland in northern England. But they both feature female protagonists in their late thirties who live alone, have complicated relationships with their parents, feel competitive with their friends, and sleep with married men because someone has died. In The Woman Upstairs our heroine, Nora, is a frustrated artist / elementary school teacher who falls in love with an entire family: husband (who has a talking-head job about international affairs and has many boring monologues), wife (who is a successful artist and Impossibly Exotic), and son (who is one of Nora's third graders). Nora's mother died and she never got over this and this is The Biggest Tragedy That Has Ever Happened to Anyone, except for the Equally Biggest Tragedy that is Nora's lack of artistic success. She is the kind of heroine who inherits a hundred grand and still complains about her life; who always describes herself as "the funny one" when she never, not once in 270 pages of interior monologue, says anything funny; and who bores the damn pants off me. I know, of course, that Nora is an antiheroine, and that this book is about selfish people living a clueless middle-class life in Cambridge and using each other, but Nora just bored me, as did the family-unit-object of her obsession. I didn't care what happened to anyone involved. (And very little did happen. Most of this book is Nora whining and obsessing. Not much action.) That said, Messud is a wicked good writer and in the first couple chapters, before it got tedious, I was utterly involved in the realism and beauty of the phrasing. The characters just couldn't carry it.

Compare that with Griffiths' heroine, Ruth. First off, the pacing of The Crossing Places is very different, and you could say that's because it's a mystery / thriller, but Messud keeps hinting that something Terrible happens at the end of Nora's story, and trying to keep the reader thrilled that way, which didn't work for me at all, and Griffiths succeeds in being thrilling. That makes this book more plot-driven and with less time for interior monologue and soul-searching and whatnot, but I got the impression that Ruth wouldn't go for that nonsense anyway. Reading these books at the same time was a hilarious illustration of the difference between Americans and Brits: Americans, like Nora, throw their emotions all over the room. I have an emotion and you're nearby? My emotion is now your responsibility, because my emotions are just that important. Brits do not do this. Ruth has occasional regrets about living alone, and struggles with her relationship with her parents, and sometimes envies her more successful colleagues and prettier friends, but she never loses her sense of humor, or sinks into self-pity, or becomes bitter. She just keeps being awesome at her fascinating job (archaeology!) and genuinely interested in the people around her. I wanted to be friends with her. Also, it's a really well-written and creepy book, even if I figured out the culprit before the end, and I'm quite happy that Griffiths has written sequels, because I want to hang out with Ruth some more. (She reads Ian Rankin books! Nora, for all her liberal-arts-education reference-dropping, doesn't seem to read at all.)

I feel often and guiltily that to be a "better" reader - certainly to be a more serious one - I should have more patience for antiheroes and antiheroines, for mean characters, for the "unflinching" novels full of broken people making ghastly choices and suffering and hurting each other (see: Johnson, Denis for just one example). I'm quite sure that I shouldn't have liked The Crossing Places more than The Woman Upstairs. But I don't really do unflinching. I'm a flincher. And when I read a book, or watch a movie or a TV show, I want someone to root for. 

There is enough realism in my reality, quite frankly, and in a lot of the non-fiction I read, some of which has no real hero and is very emotionally affecting. I don't need to go looking elsewhere for it. This made me a bad English major and probably makes me a bad book blogger; I want to like books more than I want to be challenged by them. Of course one book can do both, and I have read many that have, but if I have to choose...  

In one college seminar I took, we were studying Louise Erdrich. While discussing a scene from one of her books in which an enchanted man and woman have sex endlessly, our professor leaned forward and asked, "What's missing from this scene?" 

Of course we all stared at the floor, embarrassed to death and drawing blanks. The silence dragged on. Finally one brave soul ventured, "They don't talk to each other...?" just as the professor boomed, "DETUMESCENCE!" (As you can imagine, this is one of my fondest memories of college.) 

I was not the brave soul, but quite often now as I read Important Novels I feel that way. These novels might be saying profound and true things about agency and desire, about how people are genuinely selfish at heart and will always hurt each other in the end, and sometimes there is gorgeous writing and extreme talent behind these stories... and I'm just sitting there thinking, I wish they'd talk to each other. 

I like happy stories. I like admirable heroes and heroines. I like characters keeping their senses of humor no matter how dark the situation (this is probably why I like Scottish police procedurals so much). I'm really glad that I got to study the literature I did with the incredibly intelligent people around me at the time, and that I have an in-joke which allows me to boom, "DETUMESCENCE!" when the bananas have gone bad, but I was always essentially a visitor in the ivory tower, and I don't miss it. And why shouldn't I believe that the primary function of my reading should be to make me happy? That is its function. That's why I do it.

I've got a romance novel and a YA paranormal on deck and I'm not even ashamed. I bet the characters talk to each other. 


  1. I think the greats say profound and true things about agency and desire with characters who talk to each other, and also show how talking to each other complicates things endlessly and hilariously, and also break your heart and/or faith without use of a sledgehammer. Tolstoy, Eliot, Forster, and Shakespeare all come to mind. Now if only one of them had titled a chapter "DETUMESCENCE," human civilization would have nothing left to strive for.

    1. Oh, the greats, yes. I should have specified that I meant modern novels which are clearly designed to not have ANY nice people in them. It's the same reason I could never, despite everyone looking at me like I have multiple heads when I admit it, get into "Breaking Bad" or "Mad Men". EVERYONE is awful. In "The Wire" and "The Shield" the main characters are antiheroes, but there were enough sympathetic supporting characters for me to keep watching. I need SOMEONE nice.