Jerk Narrators

I’ve been stewing on this post for a while, which may not have been the best idea. “Take some time, self,” I thought. “Put some distance between you and your rage.” But vitriol is really one of the best writing motivators, and I’m just not sure it’s going to work as well now that my once-frothing hatred has calmed into more of a simmer.

The book that started this was The Magicians. It had been sitting on my to-read shelf for an unreasonably long time given my fondness for literary SFF. I needed a dead tree book to bring on the train with me/to carry around while walking through a slightly dubious neighborhood. (See also: my inherent neuroses regarding having expensive things in public.)

Anyway. I started reading The Magicians. I’d been meaning to, someone whose opinion I trust told me I should, and I had a paper copy. He did warn me about Quentin, but at the time I didn’t fully understand. I found it generally enjoyable for the first two thirds once I managed to get over the fact that Quentin, the point of view character for the entire book, is an utter shit.

There is no way for me to sum up my feelings on Quentin without using that word. It encapsulates him so perfectly. He’s so smug, so whiny, so completely self-obsessed that even though I started out relating to the book’s theme of “smart people who feel like there should be something more to the world,” that feeling quickly faded because I so very much did not want to be like Quentin (or the other mostly insufferable characters).

It was fine. I didn’t love it but I didn’t begrudge the time I spent reading it. Even if I did spend a lot of that time wanting to punch Quentin in his idiot face.

Then I read Gone Girl.

I probably shouldn’t have tried to read two NYT bestsellers in a row, they tend not be my style in the first place. And I probably shouldn’t have expected much from a book that my boyfriend’s mother loaned me with the comment, “this book is terrible. I can’t believe it got published. You should read it so you can see the terrible things that are selling and then start something better.”

A tip to the well-meaning: Saying this sort of thing doesn’t make anyone feel better. It just makes anyone with literary aspirations want to tear their hair out, because they all know how much terrible material somehow gets published and meanwhile their precious bookchild is getting rejected everywhere even though it’s two thousand times better. Luckily I don’t actually have any interest in writing a novel.

Regardless, I was bored and in the mood for something non-SFF, and it was there.

I have never hated a book as much as I hated this one.

I finished it in three days because I am a completist who refuses to leave a book unfinished, but I wanted it to be over so badly. Every page turn was a new exercise in “you have got to be fucking kidding me” as it descended further and further into the least enjoyable kind of ridiculous.

I think at some point that I was somehow supposed to feel bad for Nick, one of the narrators, who may or may not have murdered his wife (spoiler alert: he didn’t, she framed him out of spite because he was having an affair, because that’s reasonable). Maybe something about him was supposed to be relatable – the feeling trapped in a bad marriage or his confusion about how his life was turning out or his thwarted career ambitions. Mostly I just wanted to set him on fire.

It’s possible that I’m too distanced from my rage now, because I don’t remember specifically what made him so awful. The total insistence that he was constantly being wronged? His complete self-centeredness? His absolute refusal, in the end, to do anything about his situation because of his wife’s pulling a magical baby trump card? Maybe just the incessant whiny “why me” nature of his entire narration?

To be fair, his wife, the other narrator, isn’t going to be winning any character of the year awards either, but she’s so ridiculous and overblown as to not be worth taking seriously.

The biggest problem, though, is not my sudden empathy for book-burners. It’s the fact that I’m reasonably sure I was supposed to identify with both of these characters. They weren’t written to be intentionally unlikeable antiheroes. Quentin is just confused and overwhelmed in a strange world that isn’t living up to what he thought it would be! Nick is getting taken advantage of by a manipulative woman! It’s so hard to be them, you guys. So hard.

I don’t care. I already live in a society that expects me to take the problems of whiny overprivileged white men more seriously than anyone else’s problems. They’re so misunderstood, so put-upon by society and all its constant demands of not being a total dick. Their desk jobs are too easy, their students that they’re having affairs with are too needy, the world just isn’t giving them the acclaim they deserve for having reached an arbitrary age of maturity and fulfilling the basic obligations of being human.

I’ve gone on at least a five-book boycott of books with male protagonists. I think it will help expand my reading range and hopefully make me hate everything slightly less. In the meantime, everyone should read Code Name Verity, which has awesome, sympathetic female protagonists, and I will never take a book recommendation from anyone who enjoyed Gone Girl.


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