I’ve just read a literary novel. And I suppose you know, simply from reading that sentence, that what follows will be a litany of complaint. My apologies for being so predictable.
(Honestly, there are literary novels that I like, even adore. This just doesn’t happen to be one of them.)
Exhibit A for the prosecution is the “it was only a dream” ending. I mean, honestly, what was the author thinking? . . . Can’t they just carve THOU SHALT NOT USE THE ‘IT WAS ONLY A DREAM’ ENDING above the lintel of every English Department in the country?
Even when I was eight years old, and reading Alice for the first time, I found the ending a letdown. Here I suppose we’re supposed to admire the interplay of fantasy and reality, or maybe the delicate ambiguities of the relationship between our perceptions of the world and the narrator’s raving delusional psychosis. Or something.
But the ending still disappoints. If you’re going to set me up for an ending, and then deprive me of the ending I’m expecting, then the ending you provide should damn well be more exciting and interesting than the ending you refuse to give me. If you know what I mean.
Endings should be some kind of completion, where the major themes of the work are resolved in some fashion, or if not resolved, at least set free of the narrative and sent out into the world to resonate with our own experience. Finding out, as readers, that the characters in which we’ve become emotionally invested are actually delusions, is to realize that the author is flipping the bird at his audience. We have become the author’s patsies.
It’s just bad behavior. Up with this sort of thing we should not expect to put.
But the ending isn’t even my chief complaint. I was pissed off well before I got to the ending.
Exhibit B, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is that all the principal characters of the narrative are members of the American upper middle class, and that on this account alone they are entitled to have us, the readers, take them very, very seriously indeed.
All the characters share a similarity of background, opinion, and general mindset. They are all white, educated, politically liberal, and not unfamiliar with the pool at the Country Club. They’re not all rich, but you have the impression that they could all go back to the Hamptons any time they wanted.
None of these things are bad, and none of them should disallow a character from being portrayed in a novel, if it weren’t for the smug atmosphere of entitlement that follows them throughout their lives.
I am a member of the upper middle classes, they all seem to say, and therefore you, lucky reader, must care deeply about my feelings.
Well no, I don’t, and I didn’t. I don’t have to care about your feelings just because it’s you that have them. Give me some reason I should care for you, other than your privileged background. Because I keep thinking, Basically, you’re okay. You’re not starving, you have a roof over your head, you’re superbly educated, you have a job, you’re better off than 99% of the people on the planet. I’m sorry about that dark family secret you keep hinting at, but wasn’t that decades ago? Shouldn’t you be over it by now?
It’s as if everyone on the whole planet came from East Egg. And if someone happens not to be from East Egg, he’s there to be fixed by our privileged heroes, because it gives them another reason to be pleased with themselves.
I have to call this a colossal failure. Either the author has never met anyone unlike himself, or he can’t imagine such a person worthy of portrayal, or he can’t figure out how to portray such a person.
(Now, it could be worse. Lots worse. If everyone in the novel was an MFA candidate in Creative Writing, it would be not just worse, but tragic.)
Now, the word “entitlement” gets thrown about a good deal in political discourse, and almost always in a negative context. But entitlements aren’t always bad: it’s good if you feel entitled to, say, basic human rights, and property that people can’t take away from you on a whim, and a lawyer if you’re accused of a crime, and a hot meal every now and again.
But is there an entitlement for being taken seriously? I’m thinking not.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, have I made my case?