The curious death of the antihero
Antihero: Someone who rejects conventional morality, suffers from indecision, lacks qualities, is weak, epitomizes human frailty. Looks a lot like me. Is dead.
I’ve been working on a short novel, more or less autobiographical, in which the fictional me is something of an antihero. Running Bernstein, my alter ego (half-Jewish, half-Native American like me, forged in the velvet caldron that is Princeton, like me) is a rake -- a flawed person who makes all sorts of bad choices, choices that seldom lead to self-realization or, well, goodness. He feels that he, as he really is, has no value, and so he becomes what he believes is a more efficacious kind of ethnic, only to find that he has lost the very thing he wants to preserve and protect: himself.
To be honest, Running Bernstein is fairly easy to write. Since I think of myself as a good person -- I believe in the truth, compassion, foreplay, songbirds, outdoor smoking and the sacredness of children -- creating an antihero was mostly a matter of imagining myself in a situation and then charting a reaction opposite to what I would do in “real life.”
I like antiheroes. I admire the writers who make them too: who find in the sheer wrong-headedness of these characters something human and sublime. Until recently, antiheroes have been so popular, it is sometimes difficult to pin down what they are. Contrary to heroes of the older type, antiheroes often possess few “positive” qualities. They are not strong or decisive or true to others, much less themselves. Like Holden Caulfield, antiheroes spend a lot of time rejecting the morality of their times and have difficulty acting in any way that is virtuous. And yet, like Holden, they often fall prey to their own rejectionism and become that which they most loathe.
My favorite antihero is Charles Kinbote from Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pale Fire.” Kinbote is so convinced the world is what he wants it to be that he can’t see how uncomfortable he makes others, how often he misinterprets them. At one point, he mistakes a snide remark about halitosis for a snide remark about hallucinations -- showing in the mistake the very thing that is wrong with him, which he cannot see.
Kinbote is an antihero of action. Yet there are antiheroes of inaction too: the protagonists of Italo Svevo’s “Zeno’s Conscience” and Marcel Proust’s “Swann’s Way,” for instance, who not only can’t make the right decision but also sometimes can’t make a decision at all. Their wrong turns tell us more about love than, say, anything Nicholas Sparks has written. In “Ulysses,” as Leopold Bloom tries not to go home because he might discover his wife in someone else’s embrace, we finally see how love is, for Bloom and perhaps for many of us, a matter of endurance and imagination. Love emerges as something unique, singular, rather than something inescapable and therefore matter-of-fact -- like it is in “Twilight.” I like these people, I think, because I have a lot in common with the deluded and the indecisive. My motto, after all, is: Often wrong, never in doubt.
But as I’ve been making my own antihero, I’ve come to the disheartening conclusion that he doesn’t appear to have too many contemporaries, that there is little space for the antihero in literature today. Imagine my surprise, not to mention my professional horror. Antiheroes are dead.
Take the title character of Junot Diaz’s addictive “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Nothing good, it seems, will happen to Oscar no matter how much he or we want it to. He is a fat and awkward ghetto-nerd who wants nothing more than to have sex. That he succeeds is only a matter of a reversal of fortune, not a reversal of character. Everything against which Oscar struggles (his nerdiness, his looks, his fate) has been laid out in advance of his birth or brought on by it. He has been dealt a hand, and the novel is about how he plays it. He never struggles with a decision. He undergoes no moral test.
Oscar is a hero because he suffers and retains his goodness. The fact that he lacks “qualities” -- he is not smooth or sure or strong or handsome -- doesn’t qualify him as an antihero. In fact, our heroes (think of Bruce Willis’ character in “Die Hard” or any other action-hero movie) have to pass just one simple test for hero status these days: the triumph of virtue. That is what Oscar does. He triumphs.
The same is true of a novel such as Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones,” although the situation is far more extreme: The main character, Susie Salmon (sing-song like the fish), is raped and murdered in the opening pages. The rest of the novel is about how she and the others around her deal with her death. There’s not much room for choice, good or bad, after you’re dead, and Susie spends most of the novel looking down from heaven on those who survive. Like Oscar, she is a victim, and the novel is about how that initial victimization might affect her goodness. (It doesn’t.)
One begins to see a trend. The father and son in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” are also on a quest -- less to find some safe haven in an apocalyptic world than to retain their goodness in the face of a reality defined by mean survival. This seems to be the central conflict in literature today: not characters in conflict with themselves, much less with their desires or even with those around them, but characters who have been victimized (by murder, by circumstance, by apocalypse) and must struggle to remain good. That they tend to succeed says almost as much as the struggle itself: It is unimaginable that the father would call it quits and barbecue his son in “The Road,” or that Susie Salmon would become a heavenly hater or Oscar turn into a cynic. These novels don’t involve bad choices or false steps or false scents. They involve goodness in conflict with trauma.
It’s interesting to note that in a recent nonfiction book about a plane crash, “Down Around Midnight,” survivor Robert Sabbag writes: “There’s really no upside to severe trauma. . . . As poetic as it might seem to think so, nothing good comes of victimization.” But is a meaningful experience “poetic”? And isn’t trauma something different than “victimization”? Isn’t trauma more about pain and victimization more about power? That the two concepts have, in writing anyway, come to mean the same thing is both telling and troubling.
Perhaps the last novel that truly tackles the question of trauma and victimization in any kind of nuanced way is Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” In it, the character of Sethe struggles with the trauma of slavery and “solves” it by deciding that death is preferable; she tries to kill her children when threatened with captivity’s return. Sethe’s flawed thinking gets at the complicated heart of what it means to undergo trauma while trying to refuse to be victimized by it. As such, hers is a profoundly moral struggle and a profoundly moral choice. In comparison -- and even though Diaz lists Morrison as an influence -- Oscar Wao’s struggle seems like no struggle at all: Despite his Dominican background, and a hilarious Dominican-derived verbal panache, he doesn’t think or love or desire or live much differently from anyone else. Nor does he make hard choices or lose himself in them.
The problem is that when characters aren’t faced with choices, the moral questioning that great literature so often provides us disappears. Without such moral ambition, novels become exercises in wish fulfillment, confirmation of goodness, rather than nuanced, complicated investigations of what it means to be alive. It’s no coincidence, I think, that except for “Beloved,” all of these novels were written after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Might not these novels reflect what America thinks or wants to think about itself? Don’t they reflect the way America has come to see itself as victimized? Isn’t America’s struggle in the last eight years exactly like the struggles of these characters: to retain and even reinforce its goodness in the face of evil or misfortune?
Of course, there are exceptions. One is a slim novel by the Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid titled “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” In it, the main character, Changez, having made his life in America, finds his affiliations with the country battered and tested by Sept. 11. He finds that the calamity forces him to choose -- between countries, peoples, dreams. Indeed, the very process of choosing presents its own complications, which demand a lot more than simply scanning untroubled and untested goodness, no matter how beset by external forces.
But what about me? asks my antihero, my anti-self. I can tell him this: There is little chance that goodness (and therefore heart-warmth) will emerge from your flawed thinking. It is not so much a question of whether you will choose to be good or not but, rather, that multiculturalism demands you forge a kind of self-regard that cheats you of yourself. The choices you perceive are flawed by your perception, the dilemma inflected by your faulty thinking. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think there’s much hope for you.
Oh. And I have a message for him from his wife: You’re a liar. You don’t believe in foreplay.
Treuer is the author of three novels and the essay collection “Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual.”