Music: Santana—Amore (Sexo)
I was trying to explain why I love Gone With the Wind so much, when it suddenly hit me that half my favourite reads feature truly awful antiheroines empowered by their amorality. Strong statement, I know. It concerns me.
Let’s look at these books, then. I’ve mentioned a couple of them before.
Scarlett of Gone With the Wind and Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair are the epitomes (if more than one are permissible) of self-interest. But while Scarlett has a few sensitivities (notably her unrequited crush for Ashley) that make her an interesting character to invest in, Becky is so utterly unredeemable that it must be a conscious decision on Thackeray’s part. Her biggest crime, beyond unvalidated lies and manipulations, is her neglect of her son. The fact that she continues to be fascinating is a testament to great writing—or perhaps she satisfies the guilty, erotic side of readers’ greed.
A recent favourite was Gone Girl. The unforeseeable twists, the utter divided feeling on both Amy and Nick throughout the narrative, ending with a simultaneous hatred of Amy even while you can’t help but marvel at her sheer genius. It’s just a massive ‘eff you’ to happy endings.
An old favourite dates back to my school story collection. For some years my favourite was Winifred Norling’s The Worst Fifth on Record of 1961, which documents an epidemic of illicit smoking, make-up-wearing and boy-dancing at a conservative boarding school. It transpired that the character, Philippa, who’d been dragged into the affair, was nice, but at any rate some of her contemporaries were awful people. Maybe that book was a guilty pleasure, too, a fresh read compared to many of the admittedly priggish depictions of adolescence on my shelf.
I must mention The Book of Lies, which is set on my own home island. Catherine admits on page one that she pushed her best friend off a cliff, and that she’s amazed she got away with it. The horribleness of the friend, who mentored Catherine in her own image, later goes to explain the action. The second clause is just a delicious admission that she was willing to destroy herself in order to destroy someone else. Immediately, she seems a very human character.
To me, anyway. Others might argue she is sub-human. The thread running through all these books is the amorality of the protagonists. I recently read Francoise Sagan’s A Certain Smile and Bonjour Tristesse and their amoral undercurrent was really quite singular. It was presented in so many ways: as a path to happiness, or at least contentment, as enabling to create adventures and experiences beyond those of the morally conscious—but in the end the character’s apathy fails and leads to her suffering.
These explorations, so often conflicting, are what I love most: ambivalence, self-contradiction and plain confused dismissal of societal morals. These characters don’t reject morality over a lifetime of thought and argument; they simply don’t connect with it. Just as sometimes I struggle to filter what I say, and will more often keep quiet for fear of being unwittingly rude.
That is human, is it not? It is my peculiar interpretation of what it is to be human, at any rate—as I assume I am, if anybody is.
In any case, it explains why I have such a penchant for writing saboteurs, even self-saboteurs. Drina: deliberately destroys her own life to impress her mother, that ultimately fails due to the disillusionment caused by her obsession. Flavie: deliberately destroys her bread-baking family business to ‘feed’ her self-destructive eating disorder (inappropriate verb, I know). My latest protagonist, Dani: deliberately destroys her own social skills to justify her inability to bring her unrequited crush into fruition. It’s a sick list.
Dani reminds me of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, in that she is so unpredictable when it comes to activity and passivity—he worships the elusive Jane, but throughout the story is divided between fantasy and action. It’s a page-turning combination. Then there’s Scarlett’s book-long unrequited crush, that acute combination of pain and hope most of us recognise from some point in our youth (says me, at eighteen).
Dani takes me right back to that awkward fourteen-year-old stage. In a comforting, nostalgic way, as well as an embarrassing one. I’m revisiting my old diaries, and it’s a bit of a slap to the face to realise how little time ago I was stuck in those crazy thought patterns. Dani’s soundtrack, by the way, is the Franz Ferdinand album Tonight. Not my favourite of theirs, but I like the way it reflects the evolution of a house party (I could write a blog post explaining why I imagine it this way…), with a couple of fairly insightful musings on the limitations of the teenage mindset. Dani’s climax takes place at a house party, so this album in the background eternally reminds me what the whole story is accelerating towards.
I digress. Anyone else see disturbing themes in the books you gravitate towards? (I reiterate, all the books above fall into the LOVELOVELOVEKEEPFOREVERTHISBOOKISMYLIFETHISBOOKWASWRITTENFORME category.)