Sunday, July 5, 2015

Character as ciphers or cranks

Inspired by (or more accurately sufficiently disgruntled by) Satin Island by Tom McCarthy, I had originally expected to write a whole post about fiction (perhaps exclusively contemporary fiction) where the main characters are little more than ciphers.  In other words, the reader has essentially no access to their inner thoughts or motivations.  The "why" behind their actions is occluded or simply doesn't seem to exist at all.  This is not terribly difficult to sustain for a short story, but is somewhat technically impressive extended to novel-length, though personally I find it makes for very boring reading.  I don't think this is a trend very likely to catch on, as readers generally do demand more than a blank slate walking about when they are primarily looking for recreational reading.

In any case, I struggled more than I thought I would to find other examples. I think one can argue that some of the postmodern novels of Italo Calvino might qualify, such as If on a Winter's Night a Traveler and The Castle of Crossed Destinies, but his most famous work Invisible Cities, you have at least hints of what drives Marco Polo and the Emperor.  Douglas Coupland probably qualifies at least in some of his work, due to the flat affect that characterizes many of his novels, though there flashes of motivating forces at play.

I think Donald Barthelme's fiction would generally be considered postmodern and far more concerned with the game-like aspect of much of this writing and less interested in presenting characters that have internally coherent motivations.  Of course, he also largely confined himself to short stories.  If I am recalling correctly, The King, his book-length version of the King Arthur legend, had characters that were somewhat fleshed out.

Olivier Rolin's Hotel Crystal is probably another decent example, where the narrator is just outlining the details of each hotel he stayed at, with the action almost entirely implied through footnotes in the text.  It feels like he was mimicking Cortazar's Hopscotch or possibly Perec's Life: A User's Manual.  It has been a long time since I read Hopscotch, and I haven't yet attempted the Perec, though I suspect they don't feature characters who are quite so blank.  Perhaps I go too far, however.

There are a few intriguing novels where the main character's motivations are quite obscure because they are essentially hiding these motives from themselves and the reader discovers them along the way (as the characters are forced to face up to something ).  I'm thinking in particular of Walter Kirn's Up in the Air and Jess Walter's The Zero

The other type of fiction that may lead to extremely under-developed characters is fiction written in the 2nd person, where "you" the reader are led through various events, just like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books.  The reader would naturally fill in his or her personal details, so it might not feel like one is reading about a blank character.  However, this type of novel runs the risk of having the narrator do something that the reader would never do, somewhat spoiling the mood.  This is a relatively rare style, though there are a few examples.*  With some prompting from Wikipedia, I came up with Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, Georges Perec's A Man Asleep,  Albert Camus' The Fall, Carlos Fuentes’ Aura and Mohsin Hamid's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.

Nonetheless, I think there is no question that reading about ciphers runs an extremely high risk of being boring.  It's almost as if the author is daring the reader to pay attention to the clever games behind the novel, pulling the curtain back as it were, and most times, this is something we've seen before.

As it happened I read two novels back-to-back that featured fairly cranky characters -- Ivan Vladislavic's The Restless Supermarket and Gabrielle Roy's The Cashier.  Alexandre Chenevert (the cashier) is in late middle age, whereas Aubrey Teale (from The Restless Supermarket) has been retired for a while, though still seems fairly mobile, so perhaps he is in his early 70s.  (Cranks are generally past the prime of life.)  Both are generally dismayed by the political changes happening around them, though Chenevert is responding more to the global upheavals of WWII and then the assassination of Gandhi, whereas Teale is basically horrified that whites are going to lose control in South Africa and specifically that the ANC is likely to take over Johannesburg.  Both men are relatively high on the "control freak" spectrum and are generally a bit short-tempered with friends (of which they have few) and acquaintances.  Money worries (which are often at the heart of matter of what drives cranks) seem far more pressing for Chenevert.  I don't see how Teale could have a comfortable retirement from a job as a proof-reader of telephone books (!), but his expenses are relatively low, aside from eating out most nights at a local cafe. 

Ultimately, The Cashier goes in a different direction, so a full-blown comparison of the two is probably not in order, but I think the fear of instability (and desire to go back to the way things were in the past) are defining characteristics of most cranks.  What is quite different between them is that Roy is definitely more sympathetic to her character and tries to make the reader more understanding of and sympathetic to Chenevert earlier in the novel compared to Vladislavic.  Teale actually starts out seeming just a bit cranky and misunderstood, but reveals himself to be more and more racist throughout the novel, though of course there is still some redemption to be had towards the end.  I found this a really interesting novel, and I think I'll write more about it later, but it was a little bit like imagining a slightly milder Archie Bunker in Johannesburg watching the rise of the ANC.

Now that I have switched topics, I actually am wondering how many main characters are "cranks," as it does take a certain discipline to keep writing about somewhat unpleasant characters.  There are plenty of minor characters who go on about the old days, particularly in British fiction set in India for example.  Unless of course, the author is using his novel (and it is almost always a male author) to point out where the world has gone off its rails.  I would generally nominate Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Saul Bellow and, to a lesser extent, Philip Roth.  Occasionally, an author will create a character much older than himself or herself, though in most cases, the reader is expected to come to appreciate the "old coot" fairly early in the narrative, despite outward crankiness.  This is partially what Gabrielle Roy seems to have in mind.  In this category, I would place Fuentes' The Old Gringo, Garcia Marquez's The General in His Labyrinth, and especially Oscar Casares' Amigoland.  

I'm sure I had more on my mind when I thought about combining these posts, but they have slipped away.  I guess my mental agility is not what it once was.  I'll probably update this post if I can think of any more good examples of ciphers or cranks.  And of course, suggestions in the comments are always welcome.  I think one advantage of reading about cranks is that it reminds us that it is generally not a good thing to be the elderly man shouting "Get off my lawn!".  Cranks don't have many friends, for good reason, as it is exhausting being in their presence.  I always tell myself to be more patient and less judgmental after reading a novel featuring a particularly outrageous and/or unsympathetic lead character. Nonetheless, I rarely succeed for long.  Indeed, rereading this post, which is an attack on the boring nature of Satin Island, I come off as fairly cranky myself.  Well, it is hard for the tiger to change his stripes for very long.

* An even rarer style is first person, plural where "we" do this or "we" do that.  The only example I am aware of is Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris.  It's hard to even characterize what happens here, but it is mostly about office politics and trying to find who stole whose chair, though it certainly turns darker by the end.  Ironically, despite the hive-mind nature of most of the novel, it still offers more satisfying insight into personal motivation than Satin Island

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