Wednesday, August 03, 2005
THE UNLIKABLE PROTAGONIST
It is an equation that anyone who has ever sent a manuscript to an editor or agent knows by heart: Unlikable protagonist = Prompt rejection. And in many ways, the very words of the equation announces its logic. PRO means for, and how the hell am I going to be FOR someone I innately dislike? Besides, there's lots of characters roaming around lots of stories inside lots of book covers (some would say TOO many, the unpublished would say too few, but that's another subject.) My point here is why spend your vanishing leisure time with one you don't like?
You may have to grin and cluck at a boss you can't stand, may even be stuck in a marriage with a spouse who has revealed sides of his or her character that were in shadow before the ceremony. Aside from the messy business of quitting your job or getting a divorce, you're stuck with those particular "characters". But the characters in a book? If they grate on your nerves, you can close the book with a triumphant thump, and never encounter them again. Go hang out with someone sweet and quirky like Holden Caulfield, or turn to the ever sage Atticus Finch to elevate your character.
The only trouble with the equation is that sometimes a dark, self-centered, miserable protagonist can be frankly fascinating. Especially when they're honest about it. You find me narcissistic and vaguely despicable? this type of character says. Guess what? So do I. And what's more, if you stick around I'll tell you why.
Such is the case of Eva, the protagonist of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN. She's selfish, she's a misanthrope; she's a deadly poor mother, but I hated for her story to end. In fact, this grim but absolutely absorbing story gives you no one to root for. Besides Eva and the sociopathic son who is the product of her genes and her coldness, there's her All-American husband, Franklin. Though he is painted as the good guy, I found him positively infuriating. In fact, I couldn't see what Eva--who possessed a fine intelligence despite her flaws, ever saw in this dolt. The constant excuses he makes for his son's anti-social behavior are supposed to bespeak all-American optimism. To this reader, they merely suggested the willful blindness that is perhaps the worst of our flaws. And even the blandly sweet Celia hardly comes off as a likable character. Her vapid and fearful nature is so cloying that this reader ended up preferring the company of her malevolent brother.
I know I recommended this dark, provocative and utterly brilliant novel when I was 100 pages into it. So why have I returned to do it again? Because it's that good. Good enough, in fact, that maybe some of those editors should reconsider the Unlikable Protagonist equation when it comes to the work of lesser lights than Lionel Shriver.