A Question of Character

by rsbakker

So I succumbed to the hype and dropped the big bucks to pick up Justin Cronin’s The Passage. When I first heard about this work, I had high hopes – here was an honest to goodness literature professor leaping into the commercial genre trough. The first deflating blow came when I read Tanya Huff’s negative review in The Globe and Mail. But, as someone thoroughly acquainted with the difficulty (as well as someone convinced of the outright importance) of writing across generic boundaries, I immediately gave him the benefit of the doubt. When you mix tropes, you’re likely to be poxed by both houses. The literary people telling you to set aside that silly genre stuff and do something serious (by which they mean, in accordance with our specialized, status serving tastes), and the genre people telling you to get over yourself, jettison that pompous claptrap and be normal (by which they mean, become another apologist for our assumptions).

Then, out of curiosity, I checked Cronin out on the web, assuming, since I had read he was an academic, that he would have opinions – that he was actually literary in the sense of being socially engaged. I checked his university website, and his author site, only to find… nada.

So, he’s an entertainer. Big fucking whup. I’m no different than the next guy. I like my titties the way I like my explosions: big. So I’ll read something just ‘for fun’ for a change, as opposed to fooling myself into thinking I being so damn critical all the time – that’s just a trap that leads to higher order dogmatism, right?

So I buy the book, begin reading, and what do I find?

I find myself being schooled in characterization.

If there’s one recurring criticism of my books that stands out from all the others, it’s that many readers find my characters ‘unlikable.’ I find them fascinating, but that’s beside the point. And I out and out despise sentimentalism – which is the reason I found The Road such hardgoing – as well as a kind of betrayal, if that makes any sense.

We all have these idealized, fantasy conceptions of ourselves: this is simply a matter of fact. You quite literally do not know who you are – none of us do. In test after test, self-deception is the rule when it comes to self descriptions and self prognostications – and to make matters worse, our memory is literally primed to snip and revise to make it devilishly difficult to detect.

These are the characters we identify with. Reflections of our idealized, bullshit selves. So the father in The Road, for instance, never contemplates cannibalism because the reader – almost all them – assumes he would be the magical exception when starvation hits him with an instinctual hammer. Tell people stories about parents eating their children during ancient sieges and they think, What the fuck is wrong with those people? Those people. Not us people. Those.

The primary problem, it seems, is that we judge ourselves according to our intentions, and others according to their actions. So everybody literally sees everybody else falling short of what they would do, were they in that situation. And of course, research has shown that we are rarely so generous, upstanding, what have you in act as we are in intention. And there’s a host of biases that run along these same lines, ones that convince us we have the biggest three pounds in the room.

I look at Disciple of the Dog as my first true narrative experiment in this direction. The challenge I set myself was to create a character that milked these intuitions even as he pissed in them. What I learned from the beginning of The Passage was just how effective this milking can be. The character of Jeanette, the back-story Cronin gives, is – intellectually speaking – laughable. Almost unbearable for its cliche sentimentality – not a single step sideways that I can find – and in all fairness to Cronin, maybe that’s yet to come.

But I’ll be damned if it didn’t work.

I often joke about fatherhood turning me into a sentimental old fool. Maybe I am. Maybe I should give it all up and begin writing jingles for Cheez-Whiz or something equally… spreadable.