On Bad Guys
So for a lot of reasons--reading dozens of books for comps, teaching a literature class, re-watching Fringe, Rex Ryan, everything else--I've been thinking a lot about "bad guys." Previously, it had been an easy category to ignore in fiction or leave to movies and TV shows, forms of art where the old good vs. bad, white hat vs. black hat narrative structures exist a bit more clearly and persistently.
(Perhaps they weren't quite as ravaged by modernity/post-modernity? Perhaps what we now call literary fiction, by definition, has always left these categories to whatever era's popular forms? Or it's both, that writers and readers don't need or want a Dickens?)
In literary fiction, however, there's rarely a clear antagonist, at least in the sense of being totally, irredeemably bad. It's maybe a stupid distinction. Of course fiction still deals with these plots, just that those books tend to be bought at airports or marketed to children. There's still the same impulse in genre work there's always been--to entertain, thrill, titillate--and we still crave the escape of this even if now we prefer to take it over a screen with pretty actors. And, of course, a good deal of literary work does use and play with this same dichotomy, this same old plot, especially as every hot young (male) writer since Chabon seems to want to make a case for comic books and pulp novels as art.
Even then, however, things are rarely allowed to devolve into that clear relationship between good and bad. It's simply not literary. Whatever qualities we want that word to carry--complex, layered, stylized--they're the opposite of such a defined way of looking at the world and of plot. Anything else is genre stuff. And, as I said, it's a binary that's mostly breaking down--maybe one of the last after decades of trying to stomp these things out--but even as genre work creeps into the literary, it's not able to bring the full starkness of contrast between its characters with it.
Far more often, the bad guy is anything but a person. The bad guy is government or a corporation or a religion or any other institution we're comfortable calling into question when we know that to call a person such a word is silly and shallow and, with a few terribly notable exceptions, typically fails to grasp anywhere near the whole truth of a human being. And it's not that there aren't bad characters--there are--it's that they're caught up in the same problematic system as the protagonist and so their agency isn't their own, they're acting out learned behaviors, their sin is, unlike the protagonist, in being unable to see or separate themselves from what is corrupting them.
And this is interesting to me not because I care about having bad guys in literary fiction--and I know, I know they are out there--or even making a case for literary fiction as a category (which I certainly don't care to do) but because the first thing most students seem to do is shift characters into these roles no matter how earned or unearned. It's fascinating, both as a teacher and as a person who realizes how often this gets done in life as well.
For students, they typically don't say "bad guy" but they often will come into class having read a complicated story without clear roles and say, "I was rooting for her." or "He's a jerk. I wanted bad things to happen to him." And they say these things not because they're misreading the story, but because most are coming from those genre narratives where these roles still exist and identifying them is the first step in understanding a plot.
(Teaching a class of high school aged students this summer who were obsessed with The Avengers, they would often assign characters--and themselves--the roles. So a particular strain of good guy would be "a Thor" and a bad guy "a total Loki". For a few texts and films, it actually sort of worked).
So I was thinking about this when my class read A.M. Homes's story "Do Not Disturb", a perfect example of a story with a bad guy and of how literary fiction these days chooses to complicate that idea. It's a story about how we lean on that narrative in real life, and it offers it to us itself in such a way that it's almost impossible not to take the bait.
(Ha, I googled to see if the story was online--it's not, I don't think--and saw that Dave wrote about it here. I'm not going to read that yet, but I'm sure his thoughts are better)
In sum: wife is a mean person, gets cancer, gets meaner, husband tries to run away, can't, the end. It is, frankly, a remarkably depressing story for anyone to read, especially for anyone who was in, is in, or plans to be in a relationship. And there's this whole reversal of gender roles dynamic, too. The wife takes on all the traditionally masculine qualities while the husband the traditionally feminine. My students were so good at pointing out examples of this that I actually started to think a little less of the story. There are also times--the husband does not know how many ovaries a woman has; the version of femininity who finally comforts the husband is literally (though subtly) a French maid--where it's more than a little ridiculous and on-the-nose.
It's a very heavily constructed story in this sense, for good and bad. It begins and ends with a character writhing in pain and stuck on the floor, there's the body of a husband who has jumped from a building our husband is compared to then later he gets the chance to jump from a great height himself, there's a Ferris Wheel on which they are (again with this word) literally going around in circles, etc.
But to say these are fatal flaws or even flaws would be to miss the humor of the story. It's very funny. And it's meant to be over-the-top given that an essential element in understanding the story is putting weight on the husband's narration. In his telling, the wife is certainly the bad guy. She's uncommunicative, withholding, demeaning, sarcastic, cold, etc. All the words you might throw at a bad partner or hear from a friend post-breakup.
(I initially said post-divorce there until I realized none of my friends are divorced. Yet. See you back at the bar someday, guys!--is that a terrible joke? Feels like a terrible joke. Fine, fine, I'm the bad guy of my own blog post).
And god is she really those things. The students, rightly, hated her in the same way they hated a lot of characters who did far less to deserve it. She was the bad guy. The end. So I asked, does that make the husband the good guy? This they didn't seem to want to grant--he's whiny and ineffectual--but ultimately they decided yes, he has to be. She's that bad and this is how these things work.
But it's impossible that this is truly the case because if we accept, at the end of the story, that the wife is bad then we have to accept that the French maid is good. Call it a hunch, but I simply refuse to believe this is what A.M. Homes intends to say about what it means to be a woman. That the wife can really be summed up, as the husband seems to think and as she herself says, as simply "a bitch." That what our highly sensitive, feminized male narrator really needs is for a sexualized woman to rub his feet and feed him chocolates so he can be a man again. I know in summary it seems ridiculous to think one could ever believe these things--that even by virtue of it being a "literary" story we know it can't possibly be arguing for such politically incorrect reductions--but what allows that reading, what allows students (and I'm sure many others) to take the bait of hating her, is how completely that narrative pushes her into that bad guy role. And it needs her there because it's only by coming to the brink of accepting that hate that the careful reader is able to see Homes's far more complicated narrative.
And this, I suppose, is where we come back around to how bad guys are getting used most often in literary fiction these days. As a sort of a red herring, as one who throws those old narratives back into question. As critiques of institutions not people. Because the wife is unquestionably a selfish, awful person, but to fall into the trap of labeling her the bad guy is to miss the moments where is not those things. Her concern for having children. Her trauma of having that, and the very organs that make her a woman, stolen from her by her own body and a male-dominated medical establishment she's a part of. Her own peevish, needy husband who wants something from her she cannot give, at least not now, maybe not ever. To miss these things is to deny her the full access to her own humanity. It's to fail to understand that this is a story not solely about a sick wife or a put-upon husband but about a marriage.
And it's not that to know this makes her anything but the bad guy or excuses her actions or her words. This is not some kind of "rewrite the fairy tale so the wolf is the victim" reading. It's simply one that finds the subtle points among all the hyperbole because having even a modicum of sympathy for her throws the husband's entire narrative into question. It's to understand that structurally the story wants us to feel that closed loop suffocating both of these people. It's to bemoan this marriage specifically, perhaps the whole institution generally, and certainly the ways gender roles, even if reversed, lead to trauma, miscommunication, and division. Her femininity is in crisis--likely always has been given her ambition and demeanor, her being "a bitch"--as is his masculinity (he's not literally impotent--though god knows it wouldn't surprise anyone--but he's both denied sex and denies himself sex). Their marriage--all marriages?--is dependent on finding a balance in this dynamic and is, therefore, in crisis itself. The sickness only brings it to a head, cements their roles (her "bitch"; him "unappreciated caregiver").
That his story has a bad guy, that it's her, is not surprising. It's still how we want to shape our narratives. We have to. We need to. I see it in both students in the classroom and in grad students understanding of a particular administrator. It's simply easier than looking for the truth of the situation. More than that, it feels more natural when we're all the heroes of our own stories. There's nothing revelatory about that, I suppose--really, that Didion quote I gave the other day says more or less the same thing about shaping narratives only without the good/bad/selfish dynamic--but it's an important thing for writers and readers of literary fiction to look for and be suspicious of.
And, of course, it's an even more important thing for us as people to be suspicious of.
But for "Do Not Disturb", understanding that impulse is essential to understanding the story and, if not accept or even forgive the wife, to see her (and not just her sickness) with sympathy she's done nothing to earn and definitely wouldn't want. We need to not take the bait of hating her because to do so is to accept the fantasy of definitions, the world as knowable, women as "Bitch" vs. French Maid, our struggles, our relationships with each other, as good vs. evil. We need to acknowledge that, once again, there are no bad guys though there are certainly bad things made worse, unthinkably worse, by being more complicated than that label. By being unfixable in all senses of the word.