A Geography of Secrets

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In Praise of Unlikable Characters

1.
Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie is one of those books that came to my attention through the chatter of the booksellers with Twitter accounts who make my life so expensive. When it comes to following the ecstatic recommendations of career booksellers, I’m admittedly a bit of a sheep; I have a perpetually evolving list of books to buy, because these people never stop reading and recommending things. This almost always works out well. They’ve only failed me once. They are, generally speaking, readers of impeccable taste.

By last week I’d heard about Bad Marie a half-dozen times or so and I’d mentally placed it on an unwritten “books to buy after next month’s royalty check comes in” list along with Aurorarama, A Geography of Secrets, How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and two or three other no-doubt-brilliant titles, but then the author went and friended me on Facebook.

I didn’t recognize my new acquaintance’s name, but there in her bio was the title of the book I’d heard so much about. Also, she seemed friendly. The next day I had some time to kill in Grand Central Station, and found myself browsing in the station bookstore. There was Bad Marie staring up at me from the table for the fourth time in as many bookstores, so I threw caution to the wind and scored a copy. It felt a little illicit, because there are months when fifteen dollars is a not-insignificant sum. I find this actually fitting, because everything about this book is illicit and the heroine is frequently strapped for cash.

Bad Marie describes a time that might be a pivotal moment in the life of Marie, or might, just as likely, be the beginning of the end. Marie is thirty years old, employed as a full-time nanny to her uptight and controlling friend Ellen’s two-year-old daughter. The two-year-old, Caitlin, is the light of Marie’s life, her “better half”, her darling. It’s a dead-end job, but Marie is more or less content. She is without ambition. Impulse control is a problem. She spent six years of her twenties in prison for accessory to murder and bank robbery.

The arrangement crumbles when Marie, who enjoys taking baths with Caitlin and doesn’t think it’s such a big deal to drink on the job, passes out in the bathtub. Ellen and her dashing French husband Benoît come home early that evening, and Marie wakes to find the two of them staring down at her; Ellen aghast, her husband with evident appreciation. By the next day she’s been fired, and within a week she’s en route to Paris with Caitlin and Benoît.

I started Bad Marie at the beginning of my morning commute. By the end of my return trip home that afternoon I wasn’t done yet and it wasn’t really possible to enter my apartment and get on with my life until I found out how the book ended, so I holed up in a café for forty minutes until I’d finished the last page. I’m filled with admiration for the work.

It’s a fast, fearless little book about a woman who does very bad things. Marie is supremely conniving. “I gave you this job against my better judgment,” Ellen tells her in a restaurant, the day after the bathtub-and-whisky incident.
“I’m really busy at work, Marie. I have an important job. I have a career, Marie. I swear to God, I don’t have time to look for a new nanny right now.”
“I’ve inconvenienced you,” Marie said, wondering what the fuck Ellen was talking about. Ellen was worried about her job. Marie was going to wreck her marriage. Marie might have held off, had she been allowed to keep her job.
By any rational measure, this is not a pleasant person. Marie is vengeful, and she’s unsophisticated—her main complaint about France is that they speak so much French over there—but she has a talent for survival, and I found that I adored her. More than that, I found her refreshing.

2.
Authors are too timid, it seems to me sometimes, in the face of the demand for conventionally sympathetic characters. “I didn’t like any of the characters” is a common Amazon reviewer’s refrain—or, I don’t know, maybe that’s just what they say about the books that I write. They say it like it’s a bad thing.

I’m not entirely unsympathetic. I read John Updike’s Rabbit is Rich recently, and was so thoroughly disgusted by Rabbit’s son Nelson that I had to keep cheating on the book in order to get through it. This speaks volumes, I think, about Updike’s brilliance in character development. It’s rare to encounter a character so maddeningly real.

Nelson is a whiner, and nothing’s ever his fault. I found it impossible to spend extended periods of time in Nelson’s company, so every few dozen pages I’d put the book down and take a break with another novel, read something else til I was ready to come back again. It wasn’t until Nelson’s wife echoed my thoughts in the text—“You’re spoiled and you’re a bully”—that it became possible to read on without reservations.

On the other hand, deeply flawed characters are interesting. I will never forget Nelson Angstrom, which is more than I can say for most characters I encounter in fiction. One of the most memorable books from my early teens was Ruth Rendell’s Live Flesh. I read through a great many of my mother’s mass market paperbacks, and this one stands out in memory. I don’t have a copy now, and I don’t remember if it was good or not. What I do remember is that the book’s narrated by an ex-con who, in the years before he went to jail, raped several women and crippled a police officer. Making your first-person narrator a serial rapist is a shockingly bold choice, and it’s one of the few books from that period that I remember clearly.

In her new novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me, Edan Lepucki (a Millions staff writer) takes on a more conventionally distasteful narrator. You’ve met girls like Joellyn, or at least, I’ve met girls like Joellyn. She’s pretty, superior, and a little heartless, an entitled young woman who hasn’t, one senses, had to face the consequences of her actions very frequently: when she can’t pay her phone bill, she just sends it to her mother. She’s playing at adulthood. Her mother will catch her if she falls.

“But what’s pathetic about us also makes us human,” Lepucki writes, and that rings as true as anything I’ve read. Perhaps it isn’t that Joellyn is heartless, exactly. Perhaps the problem is one of misplaced energy, the wrong heart for her profession, a freelance graphic designer with a warrior’s soul:
When I was a kid, I wasn’t sure what kind of woman I would become, but I had a hunch. I dreamt of Valkyries, warriors. I stole the belt from my father’s bathrobe and used it to tie saucepans to my chest so that no sword could pierce my heart. I used the saucepan lid as a shield. I imagined that my fingernails were weapons, and my teeth too. On long car rides, I saw myself running along the freeway shoulder, or in the brush, barefoot but in full armor. I assumed the woman I’d become would be vicious and beautiful, the roar of some exotic animal made physical. It’s not so strange, to have high expectations.
This is a girl who requires an arena for combat. It seems to me she’d have been a natural at roller derby, but she turns  instead to the dating world. When she meets Zachary in a coffee shop—“bland, invisible in the way certain men in their thirties are”—she pursues him more or less for sport. The consequences, depending on how you look at the matter, are either lucky or disastrous. It’s a sharp, accomplished work.

3.
In a recent book club discussion of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom on Salon.com, Laura Miller raised the likability issue. Readers have called Franzen’s characters unlikable, and “I confess,” she wrote,
I’ve grown to hate such remarks. It makes me feel like we’re all back in grammar school, talking about which kids are “nice” and which kids are “mean.” It’s a willfully naïve and blinkered way to approach a work of literature.
I can’t get behind this statement in its entirety, because the implication is that the practice of dividing people into “nice” or “mean”, or “kind” or “unkind”, or “friendly” or “unfriendly”, or whichever set of labels you wish to use, belongs exclusively to the world of grammar school. We’re all flawed, of course, all of us both nice and mean, but I’m only really interested in spending time with people who manage to remain consistently kind. There was a time in my life when I was impressed by sheer genius, sheer talent, and would seek out people based on this alone, but that was a while ago. At this point I find myself uninterested in spending extended periods of time with interesting people if they aren’t also somewhat nice, if they don’t also comport themselves with some measure of honor.

But as for the rest of it, I hate such remarks too. The point is that these characters aren’t real, even the ones wrought by a master like Updike. What is naïve and blinkered is the insistence that fictional characters be held to the same moral and behavioral standards we expect of our friends. It seems to me that part of the point of literature is to enlighten and expand, and there are few pleasures in fiction that expand our consciousness further than getting to observe the world from the perspective of characters so different from us, so thoroughly flawed, that if we were to encounter them in real life we wouldn’t like them very much.

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