I actually learned nothing from assembling my list of all of the novels that I really love

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Anyone who hasn’t read this ought to read it. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. I have no idea why it’s fallen out of fashion.

I’ve spend several days looking at the list that I put together a few days ago. And as far as I can tell, I’ve basically learned nothing.

I can tell because I actually had an epiphany about my own work the other day. Which is that the works of mine that I enjoy are the ones in which the character strongly wants something and takes an active role in pursuing it: they’re books where the inciting event and subsequent plot complications are mostly things that the character does. Basically, they’re stories in which the character is just as much antagonist as protagonist.

Now, that sounds like a no-brainer, but many of my favorite books are actually not like that. For instance, take Revolutionary Road. Nothing happens in the book. It’s all about this couple wishing they could break free from suburbia and run off to France, but they do basically nothing to further that goal. Or in Buddenbrooks, everything happens in a very stately fashion. The family’s rise and fall has little to do with anyone’s particular talents: it’s all a matter of the operation of fate, and the pleasure of the book comes from watching the operation of different personalities within this milieu. Or take The Privileges. People do things in that novel, but nothing really matters. In fact, that’s a novel that tricks you, because you expect dramatic things to happen. For instance, at one point the husband gets involved in this embezzlement scheme. But it actually works out fine. The novel just skips ahead a few years and he’s suddenly extremely wealthy. That book is more about the experience of living. It’s about what it’s like to exist in these moments. Which is why the most beautiful part of it is the beginning, when this young couple are getting married in hot and sticky and somewhat unpleasant circumstances, and even though you know they’re not comfortable, you can also feel the majesty of the moment. Or what about Things Fall Apart. That’s a novel whose main character is completely satisfied with his life until the village  oracle decrees that his son needs to die. Or let’s take The Magicians. The book is basically about how Quentin gets lots of wonderful things, but is perpetually dissatisfied and basically has zero idea about what will make him happy.

And all of those books are excellent! They’re some of the best books I’ve ever read!

But they’re not the kind of books that I enjoy writing.

Instead, I prefer to write books with extremely active protagonists. There, my model would be something more like Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which is a novel about two working-class German people who’re sort of cruising along and laying low during the Third Reich, but then suddenly snap (when their son dies) and decide that they’re going to work to overthrow Hitler. Or House of Mirth, where Lily is perpetually given all these wonderful opportunities, but goes out of her way to disdain them. Another example is The Haunting of Hill House, where the action is driven, in my mind, by the way that Eleanor becomes positively obsessed with her fellow Hill House inmate Theodora. Oh, or in Main Street, where Carol Kennicott is living in a perfectly fine town and has a perfectly good husband, but mucks everything up with her constant efforts to improve and civilize the people around here.

That’s the kind of book that I want to write.

Really, it’s not even a question of want. I can’t be satisfied with a work in progress if the protagonist doesn’t drive the plot in that manner. Frequently, that means that my protagonists are either comical or somewhat on the more unpleasant side. Because there’s something unpleasant about a person who just won’t let things rest. There’s something unpleasant about someone who wants something so much that they’re willing to upset a perfectly good situation in order to get it. For instance, the couple in Every Man Dies Alone are embarking upon a praiseworthy course of action, but the way they do it is so foolish and ineffective that you can’t help but feel contempt for them. Or in House of Mirth, you just want to shout at Lily to marry one of these fucking guys already. Carol Kennicott, as well, is a character who reveals an ugly side in the readers of the book. We all think, just like her, that we’re superior to the plebes around us. And we’re all led, by that superiority, to engage in overbearing and arrogant behavior.

In many ways, it’s easier to write a more passive story. For instance, this is not the classic science fiction and fantasy story. In most SF/F, you have a character who is called upon to solve a problem. Luke is told to deliver the message to Obi-Wan. Frodo is told to destroy the ring. They’re given assurance that what they’re doing is important and necessary. And, furthermore, there’s really no turning back point. Once they’re committed to the adventure, all they need to do is struggle to win. Whereas Carol Kennicott’s story is very different. She takes this cause upon herself. And she’s constantly given the chance to back down, but she insists on digging her hole deeper by resorting to increasingly condescending behavior.

But I think these more active characters appeal to me because they’re engaged in the most fundamental human problem: the creation of personal meaning. Luke Skywalker never has to decide what things in life are worth doing. He’s told that he’s important, and he’s told what to do. The guy’s basically handed the answers to all of life’s existential questions on a silver platter.

Whereas a character like Carol Kennicott is heroic, to me, because she’s willing to answer that question herself. She’s willing to say, “I want to dedicate my life to making this town a better place to live.” And she’s willing to constantly reaffirm that statement, because there’s something about it that fills a need within herself.

I constantly wonder whether there’s anything in life that’s worth doing. But when I write a book about a girl who is, for instance, willing to cheat and scheme her way into her school’s valedictorianship, there’s something about that which is, to me, life-affirming. It’s saying, oh hey, I am able to imagine something in the world that’s worth desiring (even though I don’t personally desire it).

So those are all the things that I didn’t learn by staring at that list of books.

Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada

coverHalfway through reading this book, I went and looked the wikipedia page of its author (an early 20th-century German). It is crazy! After having an accident that resulted (during recuperation) in his addiction to morphine, he murdered his friend, at age 17, in a botched suicide pact. Then he lost a string of jobs (and served a string of jail terms) because he was stealing from employers in order to support his drug habit. And, after he finally got sober, boom, the economy collapsed and the Nazis took power. He was sort of anti-Nazi, but in a fascinating, veiled way. His books could also be read as a denunciation of the prior regime, so the Nazis went through brief periods of holding him up as one of the good ones. However, they also intermittently persecuted him. And then the war ended and he died.

I first heard about him years ago, when someone was complaining about his book Every Many Dies Alone (which is about this couple that tries to distribute anti-Nazi literature in Germany during the war). They didn’t think it was bad, they were just complaining about the “Good German” phenomenon: the rash of books about how this or that German was, like, totally against the war and shit. Like, why aren’t there more books about the Bad Germans? Or at least the apathetic Germans? There were certainly many more of them.

It is a bit annoying, at times, how every German author (that we read) is someone who was persecuted by the Nazis. Some would argue that fascism cannot support good literature, but I have my doubts. I think there’s an element of self-selection here: there was a backlash against authors who were beloved by the fascists.

Anyway, despite his personal problems, Fallada has an immense amount of compassion. I really love this novel. It’s squarely in the naturalist mode: it’s about a young married couple struggling to make ends meet in the early 30s inflationary period in Germany. If I’d never read Grapes Of Wrath or The Jungle or House of Mirth or L’Assommoir, then Fallada’s book would probably be one of my favorites. As it is, I still love it a lot. The book has just the right amount of loneliness. In many books like this, the main characters feel totally alone. But in this one, they’re embedded in a community, and yet…their lives are still so precarious.

Also, the relationship between husband and wife is excellent. They’re both so clueless and callow, but they have such tremendous good will towards each other. It is heartbreaking. I’m not done with the book yet. I hope they can retain some of that decency, but I have a hunch that they will descend into the pit of infinite sadness…