One of the major disagreements I have with people when discussing books is over whether unlikeable characters diminish one’s enjoyment of it. I remember having a quite heated debate over the characters in Chistos Tsiolkas’s novel ‘The Slap‘, a book I really loved. Some of the characters in that book are repulsive – selfish, nihilistic, superficial – Tsiolkas’ stock-in-trade, you might say. My opponent in this argument thought the book was disgusting because of the sheer ugliness of the characters. I strongly disagree with this kind of analysis. If there is a convincing explanation for poor behaviour, and the character development leads to bad things happening,then that’s fine by me. A character is only badly drawn, in my view, if their actions do not sit with whatever development has already taken place. The Slap may deal with horrible people, but there was never a moment when their actions felt inexplicable.
This argument came into focus when discussing our first choice this month, John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. I don’t think there was a person in the room who found Rabbit Anstrom likeable – he leaves his pregnant wife at the start of the book on a whim, takes up with a prostitute then returns home when his wife gives birth. Pretty repugnant stuff. All these actions are undertaken without any real explanation – Rabbit just does them. That didn’t sit well with me, because without an opportunity to understand the reasoning behind his decisions, I couldn’t empathise with him and therefore the book fell short for me. The counter argument to this is that this lack of explanation was the point. Here is a man who acts on sheer impulse without thinking of the needs of others, somebody who has the family but is in search of something else, and will follow his heart no matter who it effects. I see this point of view, but I find it a little unconvincing. Rabbit’s selfish needs would, in my mind, lead to rejection by his wife and probably being ostracised from the community. But no, his family and wife forgive him, and he emerges virtually bulletproof from the affair. Even the tragic death of his young daughter, an event partly influenced from the trauma his wife suffers in his absence, seems to have little effec on his behaviour. I found this unrealistic and couldn’t shake that feeling.
This was somewhat of a shame, for there is no doubt that Updike can write. Some of the descriptive passages are wonderful, and his thoughts on 1950s, post-war America are insightful and thought-provoking. Writing in the present tense gives the book a nice sense of pace which is well sustained throughout. I think despite my misgivings I would probably seek out the remainder of the books in the Rabbit series, to see if Rabbit keeps up his selfish attitude if nothing else.
I’m hesitant to stereotype writers from Japan and the East as having a stylistic connection, but of the books I’ve read from this part of the world, I’ve found many have a sparse, poetic quality to the prose which is quite unique. Han Kang’s ‘The Vegetarian‘, winner of the Man Booker International Prize in 2015, is another book, this time from a Korean author, which shares this trait. The book has an extraordinary quality which is difficult to define. The subject matter is provocative, with a woman descending into madness after having surreal, ghostly nightmares. She decides to give up eating meat and from then on all sorts start happening, there’s scandal in there, abuse, estrangement, eroticism, you name it. As a sufferer of mental health issues over the years I thought the portrayal of her illness was very well done and certainly resonated strongly.
The novel is split into three sections, each section narrated by a different family member. This gives a more well-rounded insight into her character, although I would say that the quality of each section differs – the first is certainly the strongest of the three. Despite this Kang manages to keep a pitch-perfect tone throughout. In the hands of a lesser writer the big issues explored could have spiralled out of control but the style of this book is more a steady, rhythmic, almost hypnotic beat. I read this a few weeks ago now and I still think of it from time to time, which shows its unsettling power.