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I'm holding out for an antihero

Wonderfully flawed characters seem to have disappeared from the American literary landscape, so here's my offering: Running Bernstein, an all-around no-good rake.

July 05, 2009|David Treuer

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.)

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