From the miniseries based on The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair novel.
When we dislike or have mixed feelings about a novel’s protagonist, the author usually has to work harder to attract and keep the reader’s interest. Obviously, it’s easier for the public to love a book whose main character is a great human being. Yet there are many cases where novels with less-than-admirable lead players are well worth our attention. Why? Let’s offer some examples that show some of the ways.
The latest example for me is The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair (which I’ve read 90% of so far). Swiss writer Joel Dicker’s translated-from-the-French, U.S.-set novel stars Marcus Goldman — a brash, abrasive, egotistical, rabidly ambitious, at-times-mean young author. But the book remains appealing for the most part, because the mystery plot is wrenchingly compelling and the majority of secondary characters are well-drawn, with some likable. Plus Goldman himself has some positive qualities — including doggedness, a measure of courage, and a measure of integrity as he demonstrates his loyalty to Quebert when that novel’s second-most-prominent character is accused of a long-ago murder in a small New England town hardly as idyllic as it first seems. Also, Goldman has some insecurity beneath his obnoxious exterior.
Of course, there are often reasons why a person develops into someone less than likable. In the case of Marcus, his pushy nutcase of a mother might have had something to do with it. The fictional Goldman family is from…Montclair — the New Jersey town where I live! 😲
Speaking of murder, Crime and Punishment protagonist Raskolnikov is undeniably guilty of a double homicide. But Fyodor Dostoevsky’s iconic novel is compulsively readable because it’s brilliantly written, has a riveting hallucinatory vibe, and contains tons of psychological nuance. Plus we feel at least somewhat sympathetic to Raskolnikov because he becomes guilt-ridden, depressed, and haunted.
The title of the novel I read immediately before Dicker’s book — The Brethren by John Grisham — refers to three former judges who are less-than-savory men. They’re all in the same prison for serious crimes, and are running a nasty scam from inside jail to try to get hush money from prominent closeted gay men in various parts of the U.S. — a scheme helped by a low-life lawyer on the outside. While the corrupt “Brethren” have a good quality or two, they’re jerks overall. But the book has Grisham’s usual page-turning allure, helped by a separate yet interrelated story line involving a Central Intelligence Agency-backed presidential candidate.
More memorable novels with unlikable main characters? Among them are The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III, and A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. In that last book, protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly is buffoonishly hilarious enough for a reader to feel better about him than he might deserve.
Any novels you’d like to mention that fit this theme?
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci visiting my town before it even existed 🙂 — is here.