Salvatore Pane

Tag: Revolutionary Road

The Case For Unlikable Characters in Literary Fiction: Thoughts on Scott Pilgrim 6

The final volume of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim comic series dropped last week. Entitled Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour, the last chapter of the six-year long saga concludes appropriately enough with Scott Pilgrim’s finest hour. For those unaware of the series, it’s about a Canadian slacker who falls for a mysterious American woman who has a legion of evil ex-boyfriends that have to be defeated in order to win her heart. Luckily, Scott’s “the best fighter in the territories” which leads to a bunch of insane Dragonball Z-esque battles. The books are composed of entirely realistic scenes of twenty-somethings (drawn in lovable anime style) getting drunk, having sex, and being generally aimless. Often these scenes are punctuated with a bizarre, otherworldly battle lifted directly from old Nintendo games. But don’t let this concept fool you. The Scott Pilgrim books are deep. The league of evil ex-boyfriends is an obvious metaphor for the baggage we carry with us after each new relationship, and Scott’s quest to rid himself of these former suitors is as much about him learning to become a better person as it is about the crazy fighting (Side note: I once loaned the SP books out to a girl I was dating and she claimed to love the first volume but not the second. When asked why, she said the second didn’t have as many engaging battles. To reiterate, anyone reading SP for the fights is totally missing the point. It’s like going into Inglorious Bastards only for over-the-top action set pieces).

But this post is not a forum for me to air out my grievances about readers who don’t “get” Scott Pilgrim. Instead, I want to talk about Scott’s journey and what it’s actually managed to teach me about literary fiction. The first thing you need to know is that Scott Pilgrim, until maybe the final 30 pages of the last volume, is an utter douchebag. Forget how Michael Cera plays him in the trailer. The Scott Pilgrim of the books is arrogant, narcissistic, selfish and utterly terrified of responsibility. When the series opens, he’s an unemployed 23-year-old dating a high school student. He sucks.

I watched a video review of the first volume of SP recently where the reviewer hated on the book precisely because Scott is so unlikable. Surely, we’ve all heard this before. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a workshop where somebody doesn’t bring up the fact that the characters aren’t likable. I don’t know about you, but this has never been a problem for me. When I think of my favorite characters in literature, I think of Frank and April Wheeler from Richard Yates’ masterful Revolutionary Road. They’re utterly flawed human beings who do terrible things, and they’re not particularly sympathetic. They’re the types of characters I relate to most. And maybe that says more about my own self-image than anything but when presented with a character who’s inherently decent or wonderful, I recoil. I can’t relate and often don’t care about their problems. Show me a character at their worst. That I understand.

There are inherent pleasures in reading about unlikable characters. Their stories usually go in two directions. They either A) redeem themselves in the style of Scott Pilgrim and become fuller, more complete humans or B) completely fail every one around them ala the Wheelers in Revolutionary Road. Option A is the type of story we as humans need to experience continually over our lives. Who doesn’t want to believe in self-improvement, that despite all of our very human failings, we can become new and better versions of ourselves? That’s what Bryan Lee O’Malley delivers in the Scott Pilgrim books. Scott’s slow and steady growth is a reminder that we too are capable of becoming better than what we presently are. Option B is the darker world view (I can’t imagine anyone who would argue that Yates has a brighter vision of humanity than O’Malley). Option B tells us that self-improvement is an illusion, that no one can ever change for the better, that we as a species are in a constant state of decay. This is also reassuring in a bizarre way, because if it’s true, then we have no real agency, and therefore, no true responsibility to become better people.

And what do we get with likable characters? Usually victim stories. Charles Baxter wrote an essay a few years back (I can’t find it, or I’d link to it) talking about how much he hates novels and stories where things just keep happening to the protagonist, where the protagonist continually reacts. These are the types of stories I hate, the ones where main characters refuse to get their hands dirty. I want books where people fail. I want stories where characters make bad decisions. For me, those are the works of fiction with the most complex emotional centers, the fullest landscapes of meaning. As strange as it might sound to some, Bryan Lee O’Malley accomplishes this over six volumes of graphic fiction. His work stands as a reminder of why we desperately need stories about flawed human beings, because in the end, they are the closest we have to mirror images of ourselves.

 

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Thoughts on Plot

I’ve been reading Lorrie Moore’s most recent novel A Gate at the Stairs. It’s enjoyable, and if you like Lorrie Moore (which I certainly do), you’ll enjoy this book. The voice is strong. The descriptions are surprising and unique. But there’s one crucial element missing: plot. I made a complaint about this on Facebook and certain people (ahem) complained about said complaint. I’ve been wondering a lot about why this is. Why when someone criticizes a literary novel for not having plot, many thoughtful readers will rise up and say literary novels don’t need plot. But that would never hold true for dialogue or characterization or any of the other fundamental building blocks of fiction. Imagine someone critiquing a novel’s characterization and a reader saying, well, literary novels don’t need characterization. 

By plot, I don’t mean melodrama. I mean tension, an inciting incident, anything that grabs readers’ attention and forces them onward. It could be something as monumental as a mother having sacrificed one of her children to the Nazis and dealing with the aftermath (Sophie’s Choice) or something as subtle and quiet as finding out how the final night of a closing Red Lobster plays out (Last Night at the Lobster). Plot is an absolutely necessary component to any work of fiction for me, but at some point, it became a dirty word in hoity-toity literary circles. In MFA workshops, it’s often thrown around as an insult. This story’s too plotted or too plot heavy. Again, can you even picture a reader who would say that a story has too much characterization? But what is a story without a plot? A quirky observation? A rant? 

Tension! A Plot!

 

When I think of really strong plots, I think of books that have elaborate underpinnings that are hidden from the reader. I think of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. On one level, not much happens. A married suburban couple is unhappy. They think moving to Paris will solve all their problems. The wife becomes pregnant and the husband uses that as excuse not to go. What will happen? But if you reread that book, you can see thematic seeds planted throughout. References to April wanting an abortion appear in the first 50 pages, before she even gets pregnant. Characters talk about how people are more alive in Paris before the trip is ever brought up. Rehearsals for Frank’s eventual failure of the soul occur again and again and again. Each scene is necessary, and pulling out even one would destroy the book as a whole. In that sense, it’s structured like an elaborate end-game Jenga tower. But upon first reading, none of this is apparent to reader. Everything is organic. This is an instance where plot is as important as dialogue, characterization, empathy, and all the other elements of fiction of the traditionally dominant aesthetic set. 

I can’t say why exactly I’m so drawn to plot, but it definitely has to do with my odd inclination towards structures. Maybe it goes back to my fascination with genre storytelling as a boy, and subsequent return to comic books as an adult. I’m not sure, but it certainly explains why I prefer Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Cloumbus (a tightly plotted coming of age novella) to his more celebrated Portnoy’s Complaint (a long, first-person rant directed at a psychoanalyst). One uses plot effectively while the other does not. Both are great books, but one plays more towards my preferences in literary fiction. The same holds true for Lorrie Moore. I love her short stories (the characters usually want something and try to achieve those goals, or else their inaction and stagnancy are the “point” of the story). But I’m not loving this novel as much as I’d hoped because the protagonist (though wonderfully vivid and defined) is given little drama or tension to play off of. She is adrift. That is all. One scene follows another but only a handful feel vital to the book’s movement and soul. Of course, I’m only 150 pages in, so maybe I’ll have a very different opinion by novel’s end (although I’d be hard-pressed to see a reason for the first aborted adoption meeting at Perkins). All these years later, and I’m still a believer in Tom Bailey‘s second rule of fiction: story happens when shit hits the fan. 

As advertised, a LOT of complaining.

Thoughts on Endings: Lost, Infinite Seriality, The Illusion of Change, and What It All Has to Do With Literary Fiction

People who knew me in college can attest to the fact that I was one of the most fanatic followers of LOST on the planet. My friends and I hit a level of lameness never before seen by human eyes when during our senior year of college, we made Dharma station logos for the room doors of the house we lived in. Each Wednesday, we’d cram into my buddy’s room with a bunch of Yuengling and watch LOST with our own set of bizarre Jacob/Man-in-Black-esque rules. No lights. No talking. No complaining. We taped each episode, and as soon as one ended, we watched it again (usually making plentiful use of the slow-mo button) to see if there were any clues lurking in the background (there never were). Once, we famously threw out a friend for complaining mid-episode about the sudden appearance of Nikki and Paulo. And we made quite the habit of going to the local bar after every week and shouting our favorite quotes while getting drunk (shockingly, I don’t think any of us had much sex that year). 

In the intervening years, my enthusiasm for LOST has weaned. I don’t think it’s because the quality of the show declined (minus the dreadful and drawn out final season), but more because I don’t have that core base of friends who worship the show and want nothing more than to theorize about it and assign it personal meaning. Maybe it’s because of this quote from the immortal Poochie episode of The Simpsons: “The thing is, there’s not really anything wrong with the Itchy & Scratchy show, it’s as good as ever. But after so many years, the characters just can’t have the same impact they once had.” Regardless, LOST ended last night, and despite the fact that I really liked it (it reminded me a lot of a mash-up between Our Town and Neon Genesis Evangelion) the consensus around the interwebs seems to be that the finale of LOST was the worst 2.5 hours in the history of television. 

Neon Genesis, like LOST, set a thousand pseudo-science/religious mysteries into motion, then ended on this clip without addressing even one.

I keep wondering why that is exactly, why genre fiction tends to always have this problem and if it has anything to do with literary fiction. Take, for example, the holy lineup of genre TV: LOST, Battlestar Galactica, Twin Peaks and X-Files. Despite having vocal minorities who love the ends of each of these shows, the majority critical/fan opinion tends to be that they all blew it in their final episodes (or, in most of these cases, the final seasons). Why is that? I always have so much trouble ending my own fiction, and I’ve often thought that beginnings are so much easier. Look at the very compelling openings to the above four examples. A plane crashes on a mysterious island. All of humanity is wiped out by robots with the exception of a lone battleship and handful of civilian ships. The corpse of a teenage homecoming queen is found in a sleepy town. Two detectives focus on mysterious cases. 

Ok. Now look at their endings. In LOST’s case, the main character plugs up a magic hole with a magic rock and then hangs out in a church in purgatory with his father and buddies. One is simply more compelling on a base, human level. And honestly, I can’t think of any genre offerings that have endings that match their beginnings. Look at Star Wars or Indiana Jones: a teddy bear parade on one hand and Shia LeBeouf on the other. I wonder if the same holds true for literary fiction. I can think of so many wonderful openings (“In my younger and more vulnerable years…” or “In walks these three girls with nothing but bathing suits.”), but it’s harder to remember endings that don’t disappoint. Revolutionary Road comes to mind, for example. And of course, The World According to Garp. So does Martin Amis’ wonderful London Fields, a genre mashup that’s a trillion times more cynical than LOST but similar in that it also deals with end of the world scenarios. Why is this? Is it because nothing ever ends(the sentiment used to end Watchmen), so any need to impose finality on a work of fiction seems artificial and rings untrue? 

Heavy handed, but satisfying on the character level.

I think for me, that might be the case and could potentially explain my love of superhero comics. I forgot who said this, but a legendary comic creator (Stan Lee maybe?) once told Kevin Smith that comics are never-ending Act 2’s. They can’t end. They just go on forever. Batman was in his thirties in the 1930’s and he’s the same age today. The only change is the illusion of change. And if you peel away all the adolescent power fantasies and the inherent ridiculousness in costumed vigilantes, maybe this is the appeal of comic books: infinite seriality. In many ways infinite seriality can seem more realistic than works of fiction that close everything up with a neat little bow. Nothing ever ends. Few things change on any fundamental level. There only exist tiny alterations that hint at the illusion of change. 

Or maybe not. Maybe Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse just didn’t know why Claire had to raise Aaron or what the deal was with Walt’s mysterious powers.