Posts Categorized: Characters

Goo Book – Keith Ridgway

Characters enter a reader’s mind, and if they are memorable or intriguing they may take residence within the reader’s thoughts long after a story has been read.  Sometimes, these characters are epic, both in their uniqueness and in how the narrative forms around them.  Raskolnikov, from Crime and Punishment, driven by his delusions and guilt is a character that has remained with me for years.  Turning to contemporary fiction, almost any character from Infinite Jest stands out as rich and remarkable as their personalities take shape.  After reading “Goo Book” by Keith Ridgway, it seemed like the story was being created around a minor character.

The main character is nameless.  He’s a small time pickpocket and thief who abhors violence.  He works part-time driving Mishazzo, who is some kind of crime boss.  The main character’s father set him up with the job.  When he’s away from work, he spends time with his girlfriend, with whom he has a relationship where communication comes in the form of emotional thoughts written in a shared book and sadomasochistic sex.  He loves her so much that he thinks the word “myself meant him and her together,” yet they are only able to share these feelings when alone with the book.  The seemingly simple world of the main character is shook up when two police officers blackmail him into informing on Mishazzo.  Trapped between his love for his girlfriend and his instinct for self-preservation, the main character starts to unravel as the pressure builds.

When he starts the job, he’s told by a middleman named, Price, that he is to be “completely fucking deaf, blind, [and] mute.  You are a stone.  You are stupid.  You understand nothing.  You remember nothing.  You drive the fucking car.  And that is all you fucking do.”  Later, when Mishazzo asks if gossips, the main character replies that he doesn’t, that doesn’t know why, and when pressed, that he’s not interested in people or anything beyond himself.  As mentioned earlier, that definition includes his girlfriend and their love for one another.  So, here we have a story about a character who is supposed to remain in the background as part of his job, whether as a pickpocket, a driver, or an informant.  Is it for this reason that he remains nameless, because out of all the other characters he is the least important?

His importance is even overshadowed by the title, “Goo Book,” the scrawled notebook full of the thoughts he and his girlfriend are unable to express out loud and in person.  This one thing, this book, is the most interesting part of the character.  It’s the detail that takes him from being a generic stock character to something fuller.

When I read stories, I hope for those moments which make me think, which challenge my perceptions, or demand something greater from me.  “Goo Book” makes me think about character.  Why is a story told from a certain perspective, how does that story unfold?  According to an interview, this is part of a larger collection of stories involving the detectives, Hawthorn and Child, and their pursuit of Mishazzo.  In the larger narrative, the driver is a minor character caught between men of power.  How is the larger story made richer through the driver’s perspective?  We see the way he’s pressured by the detectives, the way he’s intimidated by Mishazzo, and through it all we see how it has changed his life.  “His mind was dividing.  Parts of it were roped off.  There were things he could say.  There were things he could not say but could write in the book.  And now there were things he could neither say nor write but only think, and they pressed up against the others like they wanted to fight.”  While “Goo Book” may seem to occur strictly on the surface, there is more to it if the reader questions Ridgway’s choices; however, for readers that wish to sit on the surface of a story, “Goo Book” is an entertaining short story that will appeal to those who like crime noir.

Rollingwood – Ben Marcus – Passive Characters

Rollingwood” by Ben Marcus is a study in the passive narrator/character.  It’s behind The New Yorker‘s pay wall, but the abstract says it all, “short story about a man trying to look after his asthmatic eighteen-month-old son.”  The word which stands out here is “trying.”  The main character, Mather, is so passive and inept that the publishers can’t say this is a short story about a man looking after his asthmatic eighteen-month-old son, but that he’s “trying to look after his son.”  Mather’s trying is similar to a failed New Year’s resolution, that moment when people examine the bubbles in their champagne, and do their best to ignore the person who each year says, they’re really going to try and loose weight.  It’s a cushion for the ego.  Mather can tell himself, I’m trying.  At least, I tried.

Another interesting thing to do with stories printed in The New Yorker, is to look at the meta tags they use on their website to describe a story.  For “Rollingwood” they use the following keywords: fathers, children, son, parents, parenthood, asthma, jobs, child care, nurseries, day care, offices, babysitters, boyfriends, exes, baby-sitters, carpools, buses, divorce, toddlers, anxiety, breakups, humidifiers, bosses, and cubicles.  Those keywords are depressingly spot on.

What “Rollingwood” does well is create a passive, hemmed-in character.  What “Rollingwood” suffers from is a passive, hemmed-in character.  The story is well-written and clear, just not too exciting.  Mather is dumped on by his ex-girlfriend, with whom he has a child.  He is walked over at work by his boss, and disrespected by his co-workers.  Even Mather’s parents seem indifferent to him.  Confronted with these problems, what does Mather do?  Not much.  Mather reacts.  Mather watches.  Mather endures.  The problem with Mather is that he’s a victim, but hasn’t yet realized how he’s a victim.

Review: The Walking Dead, Book Three (HC) – Robert Kirkman

One thing I’ve noticed with Robert Kirkman’s writing is that he seems to mostly portray female characters in fairly stereotypical roles.  For the most part, they are nurturers with whom the male characters have sex and protect.  Looking at the female characters from the first three hardcover books it becomes evident that Kirkman either can’t write women well, or is catering to his audience.

Lori is a wife and mother who spends most of the time worrying about Rick and upset he is gone.
Carol is a mother and domestic type who tries to commit suicide when she’s cheated on.
Andrea could be seen as a trophy wife type. She begins a relationship with Dale, who is many years older, mainly to use him for his R.V.
Amy, Andrea’s sister, is eaten by zombies.
Donna is another housewife/mother, but she is portrayed as the overbearing controlling wife who makes all the decisions for her husband, Dale.
Julie is a long stricken teenager who dies in a suicide pact gone wrong.
Lacey is portrayed as the unattractive, bitter, young woman and she quickly gets eaten by zombies.
Maggie comes across as a nymphomaniac.
Rachel is a minor character that gets killed.
Susie suffers the same fate as Rachel.
Patricia is written as a naive woman who can’t adjust to current circumstance.
Michonne is very unrealistic hero type.  She survives on her own, has a samurai sword, is a weight lifter, and a seductress.

I still enjoyed The Walking Dead, but am not in a rush to get the next volumes, there are more interesting things to read at the moment, like the end of 2666.

Blue Roses – Frances Hwang – Unsympathetic Characters

Great stories are full of great characters.  They seem full of life.  They are memorable.  They may complete jerks, but we sympathize with them on some level.  Currently, I’m thinking of Curb Your Enthusiasm.  Larry is rude, obscene, and disingenuous, but somehow likable.  We’re able to see Larry in a way that makes us sympathize with him.  It’s not that he’s a jerk, he’s just misinterpreted.  Right?

In “Blue Roses” by Frances Hwang, we are placed into the head of Lin Fanghui, the narrator, as she navigates her ailing friend’s demise and Lin Fanghui’s own alienation of her children during Christmas.  Lin Fanghui is terrible.  She emotionally abuses everyone in her family, including her husband.  Sure, she’ll do her duty as a mother and a wife, but it comes with the price of her needing constant compensation, which she feels is never fully given.
Lin Fanghui is friends with another older woman named Wang Peisan.  In comparison to Lin Fanghui, Wang Peisan is even worse.  There seems to be nothing redeemable about her as she manipulates and controls everyone.  Perhaps, that’s the point of Wang Peisan.  She’s there to show the reader who Lin Fanghui could become, and for Lin Fanghui she provides a balance.  At least I’m not as terrible as Peisan, Lin Fanghui may think.
Themes that run through this story are parenthood, aging, depression, and loneliness.  But what will the reader take away from the story?  Both of the characters are not only despicable, they fall into the pit of being unsympathetic.  What happens when characters slide toward being unsympathetic?  Readers stop caring.  Ultimately, “Blue Roses” doesn’t work for me, because Frances Hwang has created characters that turn me off completely.  There is nothing redeeming about them.  There is nothing likable about them.  The story closes with Wang Peisan sick and most likely dying in a hospital while Lin Fanghui visits her.  They don’t really have much to say to one another, and they’re not going to change.  Perhaps, Lin Fanghui won’t become as bad as Wang Peisan, but she’s still going to be an overbearing jerk.  We are shut out of their friendship as Lin Fanghui, “closed my eyes for a moment and then tried to describe to her what I saw.”
The ending shows us two horrible people who have found each other and constructed something they call friendship.  The reader is outside of whatever the two women have found.  The characters who are sympathetic are all periphery.  The reader identifies with them, and the story is spent riding out wave after wave of abuse, hoping the end is near.