The Book Meme: Day 23

Day 23 - Most annoying character ever

The tricky bit here is taking the reader's view rather than the writer's view. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle might well wish to create a character whom Watson finds extremely annoying. However, should he succeed in doing so, it's not necessarily the case that the reader will be annoyed. Indeed, the reader might actually enjoy the interaction of Watson and this other character. Thus, we have to be clear that the author should be blamed for such a character, not praised.

That being said, it's somewhat difficult for me to find a case where a character is annoying but the story is otherwise unobjectionable. Usually when I dislike a character, it's part of a general dislike for what's going on, either because the plot isn't working, or the setting is unconvincing, or something else is out of whack. I mean, I don't like Billy Budd, but that's mostly because I don't like Billy Budd

I'm also annoyed by one character not so much because of her character but because of how the author uses her. In the Chronicles of Narnia, Susan is bothersome in a number of ways, admittedly, but I'm far more bothered by C.S. Lewis. In the first Narnia book--which is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardbrobe, yeah, you heard me--Susan isn't especially interesting, particularly compared to the brother who's selling the family out to the White Witch. She's mostly there for Lucy to talk to as they're watching the sacrifice at the Stone Table. In Prince Caspian, the second book (publication order or GTFO), there's a nice scene where she out-arches the skeptical Trumpkin, but then Lewis does an odd thing: he allows Trumpkin to become a true believer while turning Susan into the group skeptic. Somehow, despite the fact that she's been magically returned to the enchanted kingdom where she ruled as queen for decades, she suddenly has trouble believing Aslan is guiding them on their travels. (This lack of faith is akin to how comics artist George Perez once pointed out the flaw in Glinda's claim that she couldn't tell Dorothy to just click her heels together, because "you wouldn't have believed me." As Perez put it, Dorothy should have told her, "I'M TALKIN' TO A DAMN SCARECROW.")

Susan makes a third appearance in Book 5, The Horse and His Boy, this time in her guise as the adult queen of Narnia. She's there mostly to be pretty and graceful so that the prince of Calormen can attempt to marry her and then get angry when she escapes his clutches--a princess for a rather uncouth Mario. But of course none of that prepares us for what we learn in Book 7, The Last Battle, when it is revealed that Susan has turned away from Narnia altogether; unlike her siblings and mentors, she now denies the very existence of Narnia, claiming it was all a youthful delusion. And what led her down this path of denial?

"Oh, Susan!" said Jill. "She's interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up."

Yes, there it is, folks. Susan has turned her back on her family and her experiences because of puberty. The ever-virginal Lucy has no such problems, but her sister is lost and quite possibly damned because she's interested in all that stuff that might lead to adulthood and possibly even sex. But I can't really blame Susan for this sudden betrayal of everyone and everything in her life, because it is patently obvious that Lewis is simply using her to make a point; I suspect he's directing that point at Christians who might grow too confident in their salvation, but he's also showing an obvious distaste for conventional femininity, not to mention a rather disturbing (albeit religiously accurate) association of sex with sin. Basically, he orchestrates Susan's fall in order to motivate the reader; in the modern parlance, he fridges her. What Lewis does here is much, much more annoying than what Susan does.

But I happen to know a character who annoys in equal measure with his author: the aptly named John Marcher, protagonist of Henry James's novella "The Beast in the Jungle." Marcher's singular, almost solipsistic belief is that his life will be defined by some enormous event; whether it will be a grand tragedy or triumph is uncertain, but he is nonetheless sure that he has been singled out by fate. His old acquaintance May Bartram is in on his secret, and when she chooses to move to town to be near him, he becomes a tentative social companion to her--but never anything more than that, because, you see, his Special Fate awaits him, and he dare not subject a wife to such a thing. He keeps her at bay for some years, until finally--look, you've already seen how this is going to end, haven't you? I sure did. No, Marcher never considers May's feelings or allows himself to reciprocate them, but instead wastes most of his life awaiting the sudden pounce of the Beast only to discover at the end that he has been in its jaws all along.

Had this tale been the length of the above paragraph, I might have been able to tolerate Marcher, but alas, James was never terse. Instead, he allows us multiple-page glimpses into the self-centered maelstrom that is Marcher's mind, all while letting him plod relentlessly (the name is "Marcher" for a reason) toward the fate we have seen coming since the beginning. I think James wants us to see Marcher as tragic, but the end result is to make him look utterly foolish. There he is! And there's May, right there! She's moved to town! But he ignores that, because it would mean thinking about someone other than himself for a few moments. Even the name "May" is a pretty strong symbol of possibilities, of capability, even, but Marcher doesn't think about that, either. Basically, James has a point to make, and it's an obvious one, but he's going to force us to examine his protagonist in minute and tedious detail until that point has been honed all the way down to a nub that won't even break the skin. Here, at last, is a pairing of annoyance where both character and author poke at the reader in parallel, not as though he had a stone in his shoe, but rather as though he had a stone in each shoe, and a long, long way to walk.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on July 29, 2018 9:40 AM.

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