Bad Connections

As I was working on my review of Marcy Dermansky’s excellent novel Bad Marie (up on The Millions, by the way) a few ideas popped up that didn’t really fit in the review. They were mostly questions about how authors connect with readers through “bad” characters—bad meaning anything from those lacking a sense of acceptable morality, to liars, cheaters, criminals and abusers of different kinds, to those characters who are just basically losers, to curmudgeons and those who can’t keep their mouths shut. They are tricksters mostly, as they function in a literary sense.

I should note that as I began working on this post, I came across this awesome essay by Emily St. John Mandel on The Millions (“In Praise of Unlikable Characters”) which nearly silenced me here. She says many things I was thinking, and in much more lucid terms than I could manage. It’s a great read and you should check it out. Anyway, as I said, it nearly convinced me to forgo this post. Nearly. But her essay is framed around likability, which isn’t exactly what I mean to get at.

It seems counterintuitive that we would be drawn to characters of poor moral fiber, but it does make a certain amount of sense when one thinks about it. In any intimate communication, we often connect more readily with others when revealing our faults. This is why relationships bloom much quicker when we’re under the influence or on the Internet, right? It’s how we give ourselves an aura of humanity, by painting in the shadows behind us; and for a writer, it’s how we make a character real. Moreover, in both cases, it makes for a much more interesting narrative that we’re trying to sell someone on. Exhibiting faults, or having a sense of honest dishonesty, creates an intimacy that is far more satisfying than you could have with any character who’s approaching perfection.

On one level, it’s hitting at the secret fears of readers. The fears we have about what kind of people we really are—not who we try to convince others we are, or who we want to be. These are the memes attractive to introspective, personal guilt readers—a group I often fall in with—those in search of catharsis. These are the kinds of faults one cannot help, like Gregor Samsa waking from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a gigantic insect. It hurts others, it’s bad, but he can’t help it. That’s life.

On another level, admissions of badness provide a sort of fantasy. It’s an enactment of guilty pleasure taken to extremes. This is why it’s so interesting to see a character like Marie in Bad Marie get drunk at work, or indulge in taboo sexual relationships. You get to go along for the ride, without endangering your own livelihood or marriage. I’m not sure if it’s necessary that these kinds of characters get their comeuppance in the end, but my instinct tells me that it is.

I don’t mean to suggest that you can’t interact with a text on both of these levels at the same time either. Curb Your Enthusiasm is an excellent example of this. The character Larry David, a classic trickster, has a profound capacity to expose the foibles of the society he lives in. He says what we all wish we would say—to a degree anyway—in response to the hypocrisy and idiocy we’re confronted with on a daily basis. Maybe you wouldn’t want to say it exactly like Larry does, but having the daring to speak your mind is something we all wish for at one time or another. Larry certainly has that. But it doesn’t end there, of course. The plot must be satisfied, and the fact that Larry is a spectacular screw-up means that the plot always will be satisfied. No matter how astute he may appear in pointing out the shortcomings of others, the fact remains that Larry is still a card-carrying member of the same idiotic society. He’s the one standing outside a hotel after an earthquake, draped in a bed sheet with a hole cut in it; he’s the one who must apologize to a smug Ted Danson, or sleep alone, or who embarrasses himself beyond all expectation; he’s the loudmouth who reminds you why it’s usually better to keep your mouth shut. The end of those long winding plots is where guilty pleasure and catharsis meet.

For those who read like I do, or watch TV like I do, or meet people on the street like I do, a struggling character of poor moral fiber is always more interesting. Someone who falls short of doing the right thing, whether they’re actually trying to do the right thing or not. Then it’s better if they can improve, or at least instructive if they don’t even try to. It’s more honest, and maybe more familiar to how we see ourselves and others.

February in Review

-I was lucky to see the National Christmas Tree when I was in Washington DC last month—as it fell over in a windstorm a couple weeks after I visited. My walking friend and I commented to each other at the time that the tree looked to be in pretty bad shape. Apparently it was! The tree I saw was installed during the Jimmy Carter presidency. A replacement will be planted this spring.

Another cartoon from the Evening Omaha World-Herald, from 1918, this one on the threat global domination posed to local fishermen.

-The reviews I did last year for Justin Taylor’s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever and Teddy Wayne’s Kapitoil were mentioned in a couple different Best Books of 2010 lists. Here are the links:

-A healthy portion of “Welcome Home” was put up on Google Books, as it appeared in Best New American Voices 2009. It’s not all there, but most of it is.

-“Welcome Home” was also mentioned on the news page of the Arts & Sciences College at Creighton University, where I did my MA. I should note, however, that the story may be selected for the Warrior’s Journey coursework. Nothing is official as of yet. If I hear anything I’ll be sure to post about it, as having my work included in that program would certainly be my biggest accomplishment to date. I’m very proud that they asked to use the story.

-My review of Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie was published on The Millions.

Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks

McSweeney’s, Epoch, and Shenandoah for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Missouri Review for “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life”; and Crab Creek Review for “These Things That Save Us.”

Now Reading

Greetings from Below by David Philip Mullins.

Just Finished

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. “I overtipped him. That made him happy. It felt comfortable to be in a country where it is so simple to make people happy. You can never tell whether a Spanish waiter will thank you. Everything is on such a clear financial basis in France. It is the simplest country to live in. No one makes things complicated by becoming your friend for any obscure reason. If you want people to like you you have only to spend a little money. I spent a little money and the waiter liked me. He appreciated my valuable qualities. He would be glad to see me back.”

Nowhere Man by Aleksandar Hemon. A fantastic novel. Smart, melancholy and funny. I’ve only read two of his books so far, but Hemon is one of my favorite writers. He’s really great, and I need to make the time to read all of his work.

Up Next

Other People We Married by Emma Straub.

[Note: I’m trying something new with the format for these posts, going to whole months in review rather than what was turning out to be 3-4 weeks in review. It isn’t much of a change, except that I’ll be pulling the longer topical and reflective sections out and making those into their own posts. The month in review posts will be more bullet point stuff. Not much of a change in content, but more and smaller posts. Hopefully that’s a little easier to consume.]

Dermansky Review

My review of Marcy Dermansky’s novel Bad Marie is up on The Millions today!

This is my fifth published review, the fourth with The Millions. Two more are scheduled for print journals this summer, one of Nadifa Mohamed’s Black Mamba Boy in Prairie Schooner and of Richard Burgin’s Rivers Last Longer in Pleiades.

Bad Marie is really a good book and an excellent read. It’s a rare combination of being both literary and a good summer read. Highly recommended, in particular, for any fans of French film. The review goes into this, but its depiction of Paris is very enjoyable.

Review News

Some news to share regarding criticism. My review of Justin Taylor’s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever will be appearing on The Millions early next month! It was just accepted this week.

And my review of Lydia Peelle’s Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing is slated to appear in the Summer 2010 issue of Prairie Schooner. This had been previously accepted, but I learned that it’s scheduled for publication today.

It’s been surprisingly fun to work on literary criticism again after grad school–albeit in a way that isn’t so strictly scholarly. It’s a bit nerve-wracking to critique a young writer’s work in public way also, but I’m not too afraid of doing so, it turns out. When I started thinking about reviewing books, I promised myself that I’d only review books that I really liked. For one, I wouldn’t have to trash another writer. Second, it seemed boring to put that much effort into something that I couldn’t connect with. And finally, it didn’t make sense to help promote work that I didn’t care for when that effort could be applied to promoting work I actually want others to read. Seems like sound logic to me.