Can we like novels filled with unlikable characters?
Yes, though it’s kind of depressing when there’s not even one main player to sympathize with or admire. Instead, we hope the story line is compelling enough and the writing impressive enough to make up for the absence of congenial characters.
This topic came to mind after I finished Donna Tartt’s The Secret History earlier this month. Many of the novel’s Vermont college students and other characters are cold, spoiled, whiny, annoying, entitled, users of drugs, heavy drinkers, and/or other negative things. Heck, some of them are killers, too. Still, I mostly liked the book overall for its originality and excellent writing. But I liked Tartt’s later The Goldfinch a lot more — it’s a masterpiece of fiction with a very satisfying conclusion, AND its flawed Theo Decker protagonist has some positive qualities.
Another excellent novel with virtually all unlikable characters is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. That book’s white gang members sweep their way through the mid-1800s American West slaughtering innocent Native Americans, Hispanics, and others. Even “the kid,” Blood Meridian‘s nameless teen character, is only somewhat less despicable than the men he falls in with. But this novel is often considered McCarthy’s best, for its powerful prose and truth-telling. Indeed, many white men in that time and place were a brutal bunch — exemplifying how a novel filled with unlikable characters can be quite realistic given the many hateful real-life people of the past and present.
In Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog, former Iran military man Massoud, the drug-using/irresponsible Kathy, and the adulterous/takes-sides deputy sheriff Lester are all unlikable protagonists and/or do dumb, nasty things as they fight over ownership of a California home — though the novel does have a sympathetic secondary character in Massoud’s wife Nadi. But the feverishly intense House of Sand and Fog is a riveting read.
Then there’s Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin, in which one can sympathize somewhat with the title character’s difficult lot in life yet not like her that much. And the major characters surrounding her — including her husband Camille, her lover Laurent, and Therese’s mother-in-law — are far from admirable, with Laurent joining Therese in becoming murderers. Yet Zola’s early-career novel is quite readable, though much less accomplished than his later classics such as Germinal.
Humor also helps to make a novel appealing despite unappealing characters. For instance, the buffoonish Ignatius J. Reilly and most of the other people in A Confederacy of Dunces are either unlikable or very weird (which actually can be welcome in a novel). But John Kennedy Toole’s book is hilarious, and quite different, so it’s okay that there’s no character who readers would particularly want to meet in real life.
What are your favorite novels with few or no likable characters?
Here’s a review of, and a video interview about, my 2017 literary-trivia book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column, about a graduation and parks, is here.