unsympathetic characters

I’m part way through the second novel by highly rated young American author, Joshua Ferris, The Unnamed.  Up to now, although extremely well written, it’s failed to grip me for exactly the same reason the new Ben Stiller film, Greenberg, failed to grip me.

Both protagonist characters have had mental issues and breakdowns of a kind, yet both have much which is ostensibly enviable: a cushy developed world status, enough material goods and, in the case of The Unnamed, a faithful wife and loving daughter.  We readers and viewers are supposed to be interested and invest in characters that are selfish, slouchy and absorbed, for all their mental ills.  They are shown to be selfish, slouchy and absorbed and we are obligated to hang with them.

It’s a tough ask and a bold gambit: actively producing a main character who isn’t very likeable, who is in fact a boring shmuck you want to shake.  LOOK HOW MUCH YOU HAVE!  What the hell’s wrong with you?  You idiot.

This is the point; this is what we’re supposed to think.  It’s supposed to test our patience, dare us to quit, and by doing so, dare us to stay and see what happens – if they get more sympathetic, if there’s an illuminating back story.  Even if nothing does happen, they remain an idiot and there is no back story.

If they were a new acquaintance, that is exactly what they’d stay.

If there’s nothing which is redeemable about the character either, you end the tale thinking they’re a hopeless unlikable shmuck, is that a success?  Has another human condition been painted enough for you to think Yes, that’s convincing: jolly well done you hip young author.  Or has it simply depressed you, duped you, angered you, wasted your time and fed some stereotypes about Americans who can never analyse themselves enough?

Or maybe this post is the ultimate irony.  Absorbed people absorb absorbed people.

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