The Unlikable Narrator

Short post tonight because I’m tired and I’ve been working all day. But I hate letting a non-teaching day pass without blogging because it’s become a habit, and because it’s a day when I (usually) have time and brain space to think and write. Sort of the case today.

I briefly caught a glimpse of a Rumpus article the other night about an unlikable narrator in which Sara Levine, author of Treasure Island!!! did a reading, followed by a Q&A, in which someone asked about the unlikable narrator of her book. Sara had this to say:

No one asks this of male narrators, to be likable.

True. I thought about it more and more, mostly because I’m reading a book right now that I find both highly entertaining and highly annoying. Annoying, mostly, because of the point of view character (she’s the POV character for most of the book; now that I think of it, the POV revolves but it’s always third person. Like I said, I’m tired. Work with me on this.). She’s a very wealthy woman who can’t have children, has discovered that her husband has another family in Tuscany (with children), and in a drunken rage after finding out, books a flight to Tuscany to find him and call him out. Once she gets there, she finds the language gap to be a problem, but she also finds herself getting tangled up in the web of a secret coven of widows who are trying desperately to fling her in the direction of local broken-hearted Italian hearthrob, Alessandro. It’s a mess.

But the thing is, amid the mess, the story’s entertaining. I’m enjoying it. But I don’t like Lily, the main character. She annoys me. When she arrives in the room she’ll rent from two of the widows, she talks about the sheets on the bed, ascertaining that they’re polyester because of the way they crinkle. There’s a lovely exchange between her and Alessandro where she asks if the milk he puts in her macchiato is organic, and he schools her on the ways that organic is not necessary because he can see the cows that gave that milk from his terrace, and he grows his own vegetables, and his friends make the wine, and he buys flower milled the next town over, etc. I sort of wanted to shove her foot in her mouth for her. It’d be the first solid thing in her mouth in awhile because she never eats, only drinks (I eat my pain, so we’re perhaps on different wavelengths there). And I think she’s snobby. Perhaps it’s the poor adjunct professor in me, but I’m thinking, someone is giving you a bed to sleep in, which you can absolutely afford, you’re soaking wet from your hike through town, your husband is cheating on you, and you’re finding comfort (and cookies) with strangers. Buck up! Get a grip! Stop thinking so much and act! EAT SOMETHING!!

But would I feel this way if the book was from the man’s perspective. (Possibly. There are chapters told from the husband’s POV. He’s usually in the midst of a colossal weep-a-thon himself.)

Anyway, I’m thinking through it because I’m working on a story revision from one of my thesis stories. The girl is a teenager – and a teenager with attitude at that – but she comes to have this really powerful moment that teaches her something about herself. I’m trying to figure out, should I frame the story with her adult self in present action, looking back on that teenage moment? Or should I try to find a way to impose a narrator to communicate that epiphany for her? She’s coming off as wise beyond her years and yet terribly immature and bratty. But maybe that’s just the way of it. Who knows? I remember teaching the Rhoda stories (by Ellen Gilchrist) to my students; Rhoda is terribly unlikable, but I love her. And here I am again, wishing to be another Gilchrist.

So tonight, as I settle in with my book about crazy, hungry Lily (really hoping she eats soon!), I’m thinking about narrators and bratty teenagers. And Thin Mints. Yeah. Thin Mints. It. Is. On.


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