Friday, January 22, 2010

You don’t want me around

Can it be home?

When I worked for the Christian Century, I worked on an article about Beck. It was actually a review of an evangelical book that called him an “apocalyptic” artist--one whose work points to the brokenness of our times. I’ve been listening to a lot of Beck lately. I don’t know why. His albums, “Midnite Vultures” especially, skewer the politics and sexual ethos of our culture in a way that breaks my heart.

It begs the question: can art be Christian if all it does is shine a spotlight on our busted culture?

I’m having the same problem with my own work. The feedback I’m getting is that no one likes my characters. I admit, they’re not likable people. It’s a struggle to write the Great American Novel today and not include the repellent Americans that surround us. Maybe we don’t like to hear those stories because we don’t like to have a mirror held up to our own faces.

It’s immensely interesting for me to dive into the psyche of unappealing people. To find out what makes them tick. What could possibly be their motivation for doing the things they do? What’s wrong with our culture isn’t that we’re all a bunch of Hitlers, running around saying: we will crush the Haitians under our thumbs! No. We like to buy coffee at gas stations, drive across town for our yoga classes, eat beef burritos at Taco Bell. It’s those things that keep systemic oppression, structural violence, in place.

We want hope in our fiction, even if there isn’t any. We want characters to be likable, optimistic, heroic, even if the people we’re surrounded by aren’t. Without courageous protagonists as our proxy, what’s the point of art? Picasso had the same problem with representational visual art. Two-dimensional art is, by definition, unrealistic. It can’t represent the three-dimensional world we perceive. In a fraction of a second, we see both the rim of our coffee mug and its contents. Hence, cubism, and, thence, abstract expressionism.

Maybe we’ve outgrown heroes. A truly realistic novel would be immensely boring. People sitting in their cubicles tapping on keyboards. Curled up on their couches at night. Watching flashing screens ninety percent of their lives. Chapters would drag on and on endlessly. We don’t want realism. We want fantasy. We want characters who triumph over our own sordid circumstances.

I feel the same way about Beck’s music, sometimes. His lyrics are obscure, his music difficult. Sometimes I don’t want to hear about garbage trees or leprous faces. Even if I’m all alone in the new pollution, I don’t want to be.

At the depth of my depression last year, I told my brother I was listening to Beck. “Mutations,” mainly. (“Tell me that it’s nobody’s fault, nobody’s fault, nobody’s fault but my own...”) He said: “That’s the last thing you want to do! You are absolutely forbidden from listening to him!” I relented, went with John Prine and Steve Earle instead. It’s pretty bad when country music is a step up on the happiness scale.

Maybe I have to relent as far as my characters are concerned, too. Maybe the only way in which a work can be Christian is finding the image of God in people. That’s the only way they can be redeemed. Even Beck agrees: “True love will find you in the end.”


Peter/Cephas said...

why do you think richard yates never made it big? have you seen revolutionary road?

i think there's a difference between characters being likeable and characters being good. like the mean person everybody wanted to be friends with in high school. i think what your characters need is some attribute or ability that people value or find desirable, like that they're funny, or famous, or good looking. you can be any of these things and still pretty horrible. that's the only reason we like people anyways. it's really good people that are boring.

Melissa said...

I'm still working on this one... I keep trying to make my characters likable, but I'm really trying to tell the story of people who are in a really difficult situation, which isn't all that fun to read about. Maybe the problem is that in real life people aren't that likable. The more I try to write prose, the more I discover that fiction is pretty far from reality.

Erik's Pacific Crest Trail Journal said...

Hi Melissa,

Have you read the book "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy? That's an example that comes to mind of a book with characters that have no endearing qualities whatsoever, but is still highly interesting to read and was quite successful.

You could also try going the Edward Abbey route. His characters are cynical and critical... but, he manages to make them highly likable too, because they are funny and reckless and self-deprecating.

Good luck with your writing. I just found your blog and am enjoying it so far.

Melissa said...

I actually just read "The Road"--great book--and I just this minute got back from the library where I was returning "The Crossing." Not as good. I'm wondering if it ties into this question of how to make characters likable. I've been thinking a lot about the question of what a character *wants* as being the driving force behind a story, but it's something else I struggle with--I rarely know what I want in my own life.

Long answer to a short question. :) Maybe it's why long-distance hiking is so appealing. We know exactly what we want: to get from Canada to Mexico, for example. Glad to see another PCTer on the blog! Do you know any '05s?