“Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides is so compelling and broad in both genre and style that it topped 2003’s bestseller lists and won the Pulitzer Prize that same year. Critics extolled the novel, successfully securing Eugenides a spot as a modern classicist and selling him over four million copies of the novel by 2014. Heralded a modern epic, “Middlesex” surveys three bifurcations of lineage in the Stephanides family. The narrative begins in Greece during the First World War, then alternates between late 20th-century Detroit and modern Berlin, all while tracking the history of a gene mutation that leads the book’s narrator to be born intersex.
Indeed, the novel is impressive. A masterpiece, even, if a masterpiece is allowed a number of marginal flaws. It’s difficult not to fall in love with the narrator, Cal. His savvy and honest voice alternates between second-hand storytelling and eclipses of his adult life in the first-person. He is both sincere and eloquent. Through Cal’s voice, the book encompasses so many narrative arcs that it almost defies borders. This is a feat both difficult to pull off and wonderfully done. There are wartime tragedies, coming-of-age dramas, car chases, family troubles, identity crises extravaganza. All while, Eugenides succeeds in dealing with the human, nuanced-required experience of being intersex.
Recently, I loaned my copy of “Middlesex” to a friend. This loan was on the premonition that they would love it, as I’d only had positive responses to the book from friends, both literary fanatics and non.
Instead, I was receiving one-in-the-morning text messages berating the harrowed themes of the book. Berating the discomfort of what Eugenides placed on the page.
Fiction is not supposed to be comfortable. Often, it is. In the case of “Middlesex,” not as much. From the start of the novel, copious incest is injected into Eugenides’s work. The story itself is despondent. Moments of light and half-happy endings shine through, but in most cases, the novel circumvents joy in exchange for desperation and slow-burn identity crisis. Most of all, nearly every main characters is intensely flawed: most are ravaged by some marriage of addiction, illness, racism, sexism, blatant stupidity or complicity. Did I mention incest?
Still, when I found that it was the moral impairment of “Middlesex” that turned off some readers (including my friend), I was surprised. When I read fiction, rarely am I doing so for — or expecting, for that matter — pleasant narratives. If I wanted pleasant narratives, I would read Dr. Seuss or self-help books. Which is not to disregard the authority of the masterful Seuss — these books simply stand in entirely different fields than “Middlesex.”
Fiction should, and usually will be, uncomfortable, flawed and ungracious. As Roxane Gay frames it in her essay “Not Here to Make Friends,” “(The fact that likability exists in literary conversation) implies we are engaging in courtship. When characters are unlikable, they don’t meet our mutable, varying standards … merit shouldn’t be dictated by whether we want to be friends or lovers with those about whom we read.” Or, the idea that a book’s stature is determined by the likability of characters and scenarios is, at best, simply absurd.
Indeed, to soften this, the mere face of whether a person “liked” a book — the characters, the decisions they made, the setting — holds at least some significance. Much of reading is subjective. It is up to a reader to relate and be moved by a novel.
However, when did discomfort and character flaw become the assailant of good fiction?
In “Middlesex,” as mentioned, such dark denominators are abundant. Though just because something is discomfiting, or makes us wince — the incest between two characters, say, or their family members’ decision to look away from it — doesn’t mean the fiction is bad. In fact, it doesn’t say much of anything about the work. Fiction labors to dissect the world we live in, to magnify its peculiarities, its evils and its great joys. Fiction asks “what-if,” and these “what-ifs” regularly encompass the grotesque and immoral. More often than not, these things are happening, or have before. This is the case whether or not a reader acknowledges such a reality. Cal’s grandfather’s unbearable gambling and lack of prudence are investigative slices of addiction and family that make “Middlesex” so poignant. Desdemona’s hypocrisy and culpability in her family’s misdeeds are thrilling surveys into character and personhood, about what makes a person human and capable of love, and what makes them immeasurably flawed at the same time.
Obsessing over the thorny characteristics of a novel’s plot is a flawed approach to literary appraisal. It is these purposeful defects, rather, that make a novel like “Middlesex” brave, moving and, eventually, critically acclaimed.
“Small Great Things” by Jodi Picoult is perhaps the zenith of these malicious narratives in fiction. The book is feral. Picoult tells the story of a Black nurse who, after being barred from administering care to a white supremacist family, is faced with the difficult decision of whether or not to act when their child is dying before her. The result, despite her intervention, is a lawsuit filed against her. Picoult tackles the perspective of the nurse, Ruth, as well as her white lawyer and the deceased child’s father — a white supremacist. While I have reservations about the realism of some choices (and relationships) in “Small Great Things,” it is the perspective of the white supremacist that I find the most disquieting in the novel. Every dozen or so pages, Picoult delves undividedly into this narrative. She chapters violence against Black, queer and Jewish people. She holds back little. She crafts a character and refuses to do so in a subdued manner.
Of course, this is not some attempt to offend readers. This berserk extremist, Tuck, is grounded in reality (Picoult, in fact, went as far as to interview several now-amended white supremacists in the writing process). It is a horrific, loathsome reality that had me taking breaks between sections, but a reality nonetheless. Radical hate, worldwide, is alive and well. Jodi Picoult simply dared to write about it. This raises the stakes of her novel as a political and cultural statement, while simultaneously amplifying the grimness of the depiction extended to readers.
Brand this type of narrative a guilt-driven call to action, but Picoult’s novel still succeeds in providing an essential chronicle to culpable white readers. In “Small Great Things,” Tuck is unequivocally repulsive, but a quieted, censored version of him would be, perhaps, more offensive. Is it right to ask authors to simplify characters? To dumb-down hate and discomfort — especially that which thrives in the folds of our own world — simply because we dislike it, or because we don’t find it personally plausible? These are questions we each must answer for ourselves.
If unfriendly characters and their narratives are central to a literary criticism, an argument of believability is generally bound to follow. Meaning: The scenarios and people detailed in a work are so intolerable or messed up or stereotyped that it is absolutely implausible that they be laced in a universe, fictitious or not.
This is an unfortunate line of thinking. The call to believability is an argument that holds little weight. Indeed, sometimes characters do come across as contrived — tarnished by logically impossible situations or downright terrible writing — and this faux plotting can make a book unbearable. Many times, though, this is not really the case. Take, for example, Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life.” The novel is a paradigm of unlikeable fiction. The work relentlessly destroys its characters, which, in turn, destroys readers along with them. “A Little Life,” at times, seems like nothing but sad event after sad event. This continent of tragedy comes to a peak when one of the main characters, already ravaged by myriad relentless forces, attempts suicide. The novel is not comfortable. Yanigahara gets up close and personal with self-harm, rape, addiction, sexual identity and domestic violence to a nearly unbearable point. JB and Jude, two of the main characters, are constantly either diabolically self-destructive or depressed. It is a novel that strongly elicits tears from readers.
According to some critics, this plainly despondent and uncomfortable narrative is apparently unrealistic. Instead of rebuking objective choices, critiques fall on the fact that the character encounters or flaws simply could not have happened. That Jude of “A Little Life” could not have befallen abuse, physical crippling, extreme depression and eventual suicide all in one lifetime. There is simply no way.
And yet, many of us spend our lives in privileged comfort zones. We like to assume there is a greater purpose to things, that there is generally a happy ending. This comes alive as we root for characters, as we are shocked when tragedy transpires. It’s why these uncomfortable narratives seem to warrant believability criticism. As though, from parlor chairs under a reading lamp, readers can dictate how pejorative the world can get. As though simply because a story doesn’t line-up with a politically correct, favorable, well-meaning cast of characters and plot points we want, it is suddenly unreal. As though crime, or indecent acts, are only disposed to befall people in twos — never threes or fours or fives.
Granted, there is a responsibility that falls on writers. Specifically, accountability to correctly represent populaces, especially those marred by imparity or underrepresentation. Writers must be keen of the implications their depictions have. However, this is not to ask for restriction or carbon portrayals. I want messy characters. I want flaws and mistakes and representations of all kinds of folks. The idea that minority characters must be represented in a certain threshold of perfection is in itself dangerous. Just as the faultless woman on television doesn’t absolve representation issues, the depiction of LGBT characters as homogeneously educated, uppity, white and sexy is equally as disturbing. It begs strange expectations from those who encounter these depictions. It represents an artificially delightful world to readers, when, no matter how we wish it was, our world is defective and unpleasant.
An imperfect or stereotyped character is not the bane of a novel; in fact, to claim so would be to ask for unrealistic, brilliant mysticism from authors. People have flaws. Characters should be allowed flaws, too. There is simply the need for continual awareness from authors.
It is in these narratives that readers must evaluate both critically and carefully ranges of plausibility. Readers must, when possible, cognize the great power of the narrative of discomfort. More often than not, it is these depictions — those of the nasty, the broken, the repulsive and the extreme — that have the most to offer. An atrocity in the real world does not automate a purposeful, equally positive force. We should not expect it to in fiction.
The burden of characters and their shortcomings are something we must be prepared to shoulder each time we read. We must allow fiction to fight, question and heal, even when these narratives are ugly. Such journeys are well worth their product.