Monday, February 01, 2010

More Fun with Problems

I have not read Robert Stone's new story collection, Fun with Problems, which Antonya Nelson reviewed in yesterday's NYTBR. However I am heartened and intrigued by Nelson's review, particularly the last paragraph:

Reading guides sometimes encourage us to diagnose the faults of characters who display their “unlikability,” as if diagnosis might helpfully lead to dismissal. It’s true you might resist wanting to know the people in “Fun With Problems” or, maybe more tellingly, seeing yourself in them. You might turn away from the uncomfortable truths you don’t wish to receive, from the mature, dissolute, ultimately heartbreaking rites of passage that fill these pages. But a genuine coming-of-age story demands that its subject resist the experience. No book is for everyone, but some books can be fully taken in only when the reader is ready. “Fun With Problems” is a book for grown-ups, for people prepared to absorb the news of the world that it announces, for people both grateful and a little uneasy in finding a writer brave enough to be the bearer.

Yes, I'm harping on the "likability" issue again, only this time, I have allies! (Or at least I have an ally in Nelson--I can't say at this point what Stone may be up to.) To recap: I have often wondered about, and been peeved by, the "likable characters=good writing" equation that seems to go unquestioned in book reviews and writing workshops. Critics are wont to dismiss books out of hand for having unlikable characters--regardless of whether those characters are realistic, and / or well-drawn. Witness, for instance, Michiko Kakutani on Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City, which I ranted about here. Also--unsurprisingly--she doesn't like Fun with Problems either:

Similar cynics populate Mr. Stone’s novels, of course, but in the most persuasive of those books, he not only maps the sources of his heroes’ malaise and the fallout it has on their lives but also dramatizes their flailing efforts to grab after one last chance at a big score or even a whiff of love and salvation. In the stories in this volume we are not given the full arc of his people’s lives; we get only snapshots of their drunken nihilism and puerile self-pity. It’s certainly not enough to make us care, not even enough to engage our voyeuristic curiosity; it’s simply dismal and depressing.

The view that morally bad=artistically bad also faintly implies that an author's characters reflect on his own moral character. An author who won't give us the "good" characters we seek perhaps harbors some moral failings of his own. At the very least, Kakutani suggests, authors owe characters and readers some kind of redemption--or "whiff of love and salvation" as she puts it. The failure to offer redemption is both an artistic and moral one (by the author as false messiah? How dare he promise us salvation and not deliver!). Also, Kakutani's assumption seems to be that all lives follow this redemptive arc; so not showing it results in a portrait that's either unrealistic, or else not worth the reader's engagement.

Nelson turns these assumptions inside out by suggesting that characters function as narcissistic mirrors for readers. Because we identify with fictional characters--especially, perhaps, if they are well drawn--we want them to be good, or else redeemed from their ultimately illusory badness (show us the arc!). Otherwise, it seems the author is telling us that we are bad. That we cannot be redeemed--at least, not by this author, in this story. Unredeemed characters keep us from using fiction as a mirror of Narcissus, which may be the reason a great many people read in the first place. In Nelson's view, Stone's collection is more like the Queen's mirror in Snow White, which tells us, to our shock, that we aren't the fairest of all. Grown-ups can handle that information. (The Queen was most certainly not a grown-up; come to think of it, she's like tea-partiers who can't stand hearing any, any criticism of America, especially the kind that suggests other countries maybe do one or two things better than we do. America is their fiction, their mirror of Narcissus.)

Of course, this brings up the larger question of why we read fiction at all. If we read for pleasure, then surely seeing ourselves as good is more pleasurable than what Stone seems to offer. Or, to put it another way, fictional pleasure depends on this arc of redemption. If we don't see our better angels in literary characters, we're no longer experiencing the pleasure of fiction per se, but undergoing something else--a highfalutin scolding, perhaps. I will go on record as saying I like redemption in general, and hope, and being told I'm good. I'm not sure I want to read Fun with Problems. But I'd also like to think that I'm not reading fiction for pats on the head, or that I consider the failure to bolster my ego sufficient reason to call a book bad.

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