Friday, June 16, 2006

BOOKS: Books Always Get the Last Word

Don't ever make the mistake of thinking you can anticipate and control your reading experience. Books will always get the last word. So to speak.

Elizabeth and After
by Matt Cohen (#19)
For starters, you should know that I've been hiding from Russell Banks's novel The Darling for a few months now. I want to read it, I really do, because I heart Banks big time, but after the psychic bruising administered by Affliction, the last book of his I read (which you should also read, because it's really, really good), I've been steeling myself. I'm not quite there yet. But then I got shanghaied by Elizabeth and After, which, while not quite on the same wrenching level as Affliction, definitely gave me a minor drubbing.

Also, if you read my thoughts on a couple of Cohen's short story collections a while back, you may recall that my biggest criticism of his writing is that, while it's definitely artful and subtle and nuanced and all that, his characters themselves seem basically unlikeable, so much so that I don't even think Cohen himself likes them.

I should clarify my terms: when I think about likeability, I'm not thinking about people who are paragons of virtue, because duh, those would be the least likeable people of all. I like flaws. Plenty of flaws. Deep flaws. Even mortal flaws. You get my drift. But I think that a writer's art lies in being honest about their characters' moral shortcomings while still representing their total humanity. This is where Cohen's short stories fell short, and I was expecting the same from
Elizabeth and After. But then when Marianne posted in the comments section that she's been saving this novel to read, I thought I should give it a chance. I'm glad I did.

The novel form finally allows Cohen enough space to give his characters the humanity they need to be sympathetic. The characters in
Elizabeth and After have issues, big issues: alcoholism, violence, infidelity, and a maddening inability to make good decisions. All this coupled with some wincingly bad luck. But throughout the novel I found myself rooting for them, hoping that THIS time maybe they'd make the right choice, THIS time fate wouldn't kick them in the guts. And to me that is the hallmark of a fine story: when you care about the characters. When you want them SO BADLY to come out on top. When, despite the ominous rumbling of foreshadowing, you find yourself in denial about the inevitable course of events.

This is suspension of disbelief, my friends, and Cohen nails it in this novel. I even forgive him for making me feel badly about my former assessment of his abilities.


Anonymous said...

"And to me that is the hallmark of a fine story: when you care about the characters. When you want them SO BADLY to come out on top."

So what about stories that aren't character-driven, where the point isn't so much to like and pull for the flawed characters, but to draw something else from the experience, like an appreciation of a philosophical viewpoint, or a vision of an alternative social reality? Or what if it's a story whose emphasis lies in plot ingenuity, or style, or atmosphere? Do you ever put down your measuring stick and pick up another?

Tammy said...

That's a good question, and my short answer is, "No. I don't."

I used to. I'd read philosophical novels (such as pretty much everything by Andre Gide) or novels where the primary emphasis is on style and, as you call it, "alternative social reality" (such as pretty much everything by Don de Lillo), but at some point around the time I turned 30, these types of stories stopped being satisfying. I could appreciate the viewpoint or the craftsmanship -- because hey, I spent years of my formal education studying these things -- but the stories in and of themselves? Left me cold.

Trying to understand why this paradigm shift occurred in my reading, I came to the conclusion that, for me, reading fiction is about trying to become a better person. And my route to becoming a better person lies in trying to understand other people, trying to empathize with people who are not at all like me, trying to bridge the gap between my way of thinking and other people's. This is why I prefer character-driven stories where the characters' humanity is the central force... where, for example, an author makes me understand how someone who makes, in my opinion, all the wrong decisions is operating according to their own internal logic.

So long as we're in the trust tree, can I tell you that, deep down, I consider myself an extremely judgmental person? I'm trying to become less so. Novels help. It's so easy to judge others based on external cues. I need to be reminded that other people have inner lives that I'm not privy to, which make their decisions and actions make sense, even if I don't necessarily approve of them. And trust me, I know that my approval doesn't mean jack shit to anyone else. This is mostly why my judge-y tendencies bug me: because they're an almost complete waste of time.

And on that digressive note, I'll leave off. I hope I've answered your question.

spacepotatoes said...

I haven't read any of Cohen's work, though it sounds like it would be right up my alley. I just wanted to comment on the likeability of characters.

I recently read Carrie Fisher's The Best Awful and found it very difficult to get through because I found the main character, Suzanne, hugely unlikeable (this was one of many reasons it was difficult, but it was the biggest reason). She had problems with drugs, alcohol, mental illness, she made poor decisions, all of that great stuff. But rather than portraying her in a way that still makes her sympathetic or relatable, Fisher paints Suzanne as being mostly selfish and irresponsible. I couldn't warm up to her, I couldn't bring myself to care about what happened to her and I was tempted to give up on the book a few times because I just didn't see any potential for redemption. I find it a bit suprising that the character would be drawn that way considering that Suzanne is based on Fisher's own personal experience, but there it is.

Maybe Fisher's intention was what the anonymous poster above was talking about. Maybe her point wasn't that we like Suzanne but that we get a realistic idea of the thought processes of someone in her situation...who knows. Ultimately, it didn't work for me, but I'm sure it worked for someone out there.

So, this was pretty much my long wided way of saying I'm with you on the likeability thing :)

Anonymous said...

Sweet! I'm glad you liked it.