Print Edition - 2017-02-04  |  On Saturday

Too concerned about the characters?

  • In the widespread longing for likable characters, there is this: a desire, through fiction, for contact with what we’ve armored ourselves against in the rest of our lives
- Mohsin Hamid
Was Anna Karenina likable? Maybe not. Did part of me fall in love with her when I cracked open a secondhand hardcover of Tolstoy’s novel? Absolutely

Feb 4, 2017-For most of my life, I can’t remember having thought much about whether fictional characters were likable. But when I was visiting New York recently, my editor of 15 years told me she liked to go to the webite of a leading Internet retailer, as well as to the site of a formerly independent book community, since acquired by that retailer, and see what readers had to say about the books she published. One of the things readers discussed a great deal, she said, was whether characters were likable—nonlikability being, in the minds of many, a serious flaw.

How interesting, I thought then. How different from how I read. But I’ve been reconsidering the matter. And, on reflection, maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

I’ll confess—I read fiction to fall in love. That’s what’s kept me hooked all these years. Often, that love was for a character: in a presexual-crush way for Fern in Charlotte’s Web; in a best-buddies way for the heroes of Astérix & Obélix; in a sighing, “I wish there were more of her in this book” way for Jessica in Dune or Arwen in The Lord of the Rings.

In fiction, as in my non-reading life, someone didn’t necessarily have to be likable to be lovable. Was Anna Karenina likable? Maybe not. Did part of me fall in love with her when I cracked open a secondhand hardcover of Tolstoy’s novel, purchased in a bookshop in Princeton, the day before I headed home to Pakistan for a hot, slow summer? Absolutely.

What about Humbert Humbert? A pedophile. A snob. A dangerous madman. The main character of Nabokov’s Lolita wasn’t very likable. But that voice. Ah. That voice had me at “fire of my loins.”

So I discovered I could fall in love with a voice. And I could fall in love with form, with the dramatic monologue of Camus’s Fall or, more recently, the first-person plural of Julie Otsuka’s Buddha in the Attic, or the restless, centreless perspective of Jennifer Egan’s “Visit From the Goon Squad.” And I’d always been able to fall in love with plot, with the story of a story.

Is all this the same as saying I fall in love with writers through their writing? I don’t think so, even though I do use the term that way. I’ll say I love Morrison, I love Oates. Both are former teachers of mine, so they’re writers I’ve met off the page. But still, what I mean is I love their writing. Or something about their writing.

Among the quotes I keep taped to the printer on my writing desk is this one, from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities:

“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognise who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

I wonder if reading, for me, is an attempt to recognise who and what are not inferno, and if the love I sometimes feel is the glimmer of this recognition.

I wonder if that is the case for many of us. Perhaps, in the widespread longing for likable characters, there is this: a desire, through fiction, for contact with what we’ve armored ourselves against in the rest of our lives, a desire to be reminded that it’s possible to open our eyes, to see, to recognise our solitude—and at the same time to not be entirely alone.

Hamid is the author of three novels: Moth Smoke, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award; The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a New York Times best seller that was 

shortlisted for the Man Booker Prise and adapted for film; and, most recently, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.

—©2017The New York Times

Published: 04-02-2017 08:33

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