Friday, April 09, 2010

Borrowed Fire: Irrationality in fiction

This week, I have learned from The Brothers Karamazov that literary characters can behave irrationally. This is another post in which I state the obvious with a sense of great discovery.

Well, it's kind of a discovery to me, because I realized I've had this notion in my head that characters must be "logically consistent." I think I took that to mean they must be logical, period. I'm not saying that in my relatively brief career, I've set a bunch of Spocks loose on the imaginary world. But I have shied away from having characters do things that seem inexplicable. My worry has been that I would be using an inexplicable action by a character to further the plot. That would be a valid worry, if the action does not make sense for the character, if I'm imposing that action on the character from outside. However, an action that's inexplicable to all other characters, and maybe even to the character himself, is not only permissible, but sometimes critical to the story.

Here is a case in point. Dmitri has been arrested for his father's murder and is being interrogated. He looks guilty as hell--what with the history of rage at his father, the romantic triangle, his appearance shortly after the murder drenched in blood, etc. Also he's really bad at explaining himself, and still kind of drunk after a night of throwing around a large sum of money--the exact amount, it appears, that was stolen from his murdered father.

Dmitri has an explanation for all these things, including where he got the money. But he's reluctant to explain the money, because he's ashamed of having borrowed / stolen it from the aggressively saintly Katerina Ivanovna, his former fiancee. Eventually, though, desperation to save himself from prison wins out, and he tells his questioners that of the full sum he'd borrowed from her, he took half, tied it in a rag, and hung it around his neck. Dmitri attempts to spell out his reasoning:

"...Perhaps it really is incomprehensible. You see, attend to what I say. I appropriate three thousand entrusted to my honor, I spend it on a spree, say I spend it all, and next morning I go to her and say, ‘Katya, I've done wrong, I've squandered your three thousand,’ well, is that right? No, it's not right—it's dishonest and cowardly, I'm a beast, with no more self-control than a beast, that's so, isn't it? But still I'm not a thief? Not a downright thief, you'll admit! I squandered it, but I didn't steal it. Now a second, rather more favorable alternative: follow me carefully, or I may get confused again—my head's going round—and so, for the second alternative: I spend here only fifteen hundred out of the three thousand, that is, only half. Next day I go and take that half to her: ‘Katya, take this fifteen hundred from me, I'm a low beast, and an untrustworthy scoundrel, for I've wasted half the money, and I shall waste this, too, so keep me from temptation!’ Well, what of that alternative? I should be a beast and a scoundrel, and whatever you like; but not a thief, not altogether a thief, or I should not have brought back what was left, but have kept that, too. She would see at once that since I brought back half, I should pay back what I'd spent, that I should never give up trying to, that I should work to get it and pay it back. So in that case I should be a scoundrel, but not a thief, you may say what you like, not a thief!”

“I admit that there is a certain distinction,” said the prosecutor, with a cold smile. “But it's strange that you see such a vital difference.”

This "amulet" is now gone and the money spent, so all that's left between Dmitri and prison is this explanation. And the prosecutor isn't buying. He thinks the explanation is "strange." It makes perfect sense to Dmitri, and for Dmitri as a character, but does not work for anyone else. Dmitri, to his despair, sees that clearly.

I'm reminded of Richard Price's Lush Life here (thanks to Ryanx for bringing this book up yesterday). That story, too, hinges on the main character's behaving irrationally at a critical moment, leading to his being accused of murder. As economists are also discovering--apparently with greater wonder even than mine--human beings do not always act in their own best interests. They freak out under stress; they make plans that seem logical at the time, but later seem incredibly weird and stupid. In both BK and Lush Life, these irrational acts drive the plot, because these stories are about human irrationality. (So is the economy.)

In other words, I have learned, it is OK if your plot is not a neat little puzzle made up of characters behaving sensibly. Your plot can be more like, I dunno, an industrial accident,* followed by urgent but incomplete clean-up efforts. For literary works, the latter is most likely preferable. But the accident has to come from a character or characters who are capable of having such accidents. You can't just dump irrationality all over your world from above.**

*Obviously I'm still hung up on DeLillo here.
**It's sort of funny that this is what DeLillo does with his "airborne toxic event." It is literally imposed from above. But it's also the data smog in people's systems, externalized as a plot device and parody of the author-as-God.

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