Monday, June 14, 2010

Once more with compassion

I am reading Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City. Michiko Kakutani's review of this book prompted a rant from me awhile back, which I will now revisit, having a better idea now what I am talking about.

To recap: characters are not people (I ranted), and reviews that rate books based on the "likability" of the characters are...just...silly. But then I got hung up, as always, on exactly what it means when someone "likes" or "loves" a character, as opposed to, say, an actual person. And I did concede that opening oneself to feeling compassion or "mercy" for a character allows you to see more aspects of that character. I am coming more and more to that conclusion. In other words, as a fiction writer, I have developed a utilitarian view of compassion. It is worth trying to love your characters, but not because they are people or near-people, or because this somehow gives you practice in loving actual people. Rather, compassion demands that you notice details. If you are in a forgiving, open frame of mind, you naturally look for redeeming qualities even in the most villainous of villains. You also allow yourself to see foibles in your "good" characters, because you know these foibles don't make your characters worthless, but merely human. In other words, this openness in you, as the writer, makes your characters complex and interesting--likable because they are compelling, not because they are squeaky-clean good.

Now, about Chronic City. I can see why Kakutani found the long-winded Perkus and his acolytes frustrating. They do natter on. Basically the book (so far, I have not finished it yet) is mostly about going over to Perkus's apartment, getting stoned, and talking. There's also some sex, a loose tiger (apparently mechanical) tearing up the city, and an astronaut--the narrator's fiancee--stranded on a space station called Northern Lights.

Lethem is definitely taking some risks here. As reviewers other than Kakutani suggested, he intentionally--I believe--makes these conversations overly long and somewhat pointless; he also makes his narrator intentionally vague and distant, going so far as to name him Chase Insteadman. We are meant to understand, I think, that all this verbiage is a screen against powerful emotion, a way of diluting it, and also a way of life for a great many people. There's a reason the astronaut's letters back to earth contain the most emotion-laden language in the book. Dying of cancer and stranded, she is emotion, in some sense. And perhaps it is not all bad that she is far away. It is not at all clear, at least thus far, that "getting in touch" with their emotions would help any of these people, or the book itself.

The question this book raises for me, because it has direct relevance to my own work, is how realistic can characters be when their milieu is partly unrealistic? Like the characters in DeLillo's White Noise, the people in Chronic City are a little abstract. They are largely composed of their own voices, appearing only as their points of view in conversations. They represent positions. This is not to say that one cannot feel for them. But perhaps they are spread a little thin, as it were, to accommodate the wider boundaries of their world--a world in which a tunneling tiger destroys city blocks routinely, in which there are more frequent hints of magic, both good and bad, than in our own. Could you successfully create less abstract, more human characters and still have them inhabit such a world?

My suspicion (and worry) is, perhaps not. I tend to think we are very much products of our environments. So we can't quite know what a product of an environment that does not, and cannot, actually exist would be like. In this case it might make more sense to have the characters float above that world somewhat, commenting on it from some distance rather than thrashing around inside it. Because in the latter case, your real characters start to make your unreal world look like a contrivance.

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