Monday, July 07, 2008

A Strong Reaction

Here’s something to think about: Can you actually like a book while despising all of the characters in it? We had an interesting discussion of The Emperor’s Children at last night’s book club meeting as we struggled to see redeeming qualities of the book.

Most people in our book club go a long way to give a book a fair chance. I can only remember one time in the club’s history when someone said, “I can’t find even one good word in that book” (referring to Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles, which most of us loved). He and his wife dropped out of the book club soon thereafter.

But as people started to read the current book, it seemed that the overriding sentiment was a hatred of the principal characters, three rather spoiled brat kids who had all attended Brown together and were now trying to find their way in the world. The other characters didn’t have a lot of redeeming qualities either.

Although I must say that Booty, a boy with no social skills whatever, elicited the most discussion as we debated whether the end of the book had him committing suicide or not. My husband actually liked Booty a lot, comparing him to Ignatius P. Reilly, the famed hotdog salesman of The Confederacy of Dunces.

We also talked about entitlement as it pertains to many of today’s young people who feel society owes them something. There’s Marina, who has been writing a book about children’s clothing for 8 years since graduation while being supported by her parents. There’s Danielle, the most established of the three, who proceeds to have an affair with Marina’s father. Then there’s Julius, their gay guy friend, who has not managed to get beyond a temp agency in between his many failed relationships and snorts of white powder.

One person’s question of “Why did she write the book?” remained largely unanswered. Someone else commented that it could have benefitted from a better editor.

What we have realized over the book club’s 12-year existence is that there is nothing more boring than everyone coming in and saying, “I loved the book.” Ho-hum. Instead when there is a mixed review, we have a spirited discussion, constantly reminding ourselves that the goal is never to get a 100% approval rating.


Blogger Kristin said...

I have to admit that you make it sound interesting, if not necessarily "likable." I rather dislike books in which everyone's pleasant but hope there's at least one character with whom I can identify.

12:48 PM  
Blogger media concepts said...

Interesting and thought-provoking post. It's funny that you mentioned "A Confederacy of Dunces." Isn't that a book that most readers love, yet which has few likeable characters? I'm not sure I can think of any. Maybe the guy who sweeps the strip club. On the other hand, I don't think many people doubted why Toole wrote the book, or what purpose it served.

2:41 PM  
Blogger Kellyann Brown said...

A book I haven't read!(Although I did read "A Confederacy of Dunces"). Sometimes it's possible to like a book and despise the characters because they all come to an unfortunate end. I would rather read a book that makes you think about it, but I am a sucker for a happy ending. When I am getting the feeling that there is no happy endings in the world, I go and read some fictional romances... eye candy!

2:52 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kristin -- I kept looking for that character with whom I could identify. The closest I got was Marina's family's Hispanic cleaning lady.

MC -- I think the characters in A Confederacy of Dunces are all somewhat likable in their own warped way. Perhaps the difference is that it is so improbable as a story, whereas The Emperor's Clothes makes you think there might just be a lot of people out there behaving just as these unlikable characters are behaving.

Kelly -- I too am a real sucker for happy endings. That's why I was going to be crestfallen if they proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that the only remotely likable character had jumped to his death in the end.

3:12 PM  
Blogger Gary said...

To jump on 'A Confederacy of Dunces' first, if I may, I agree with you about the absurd, larger than life quality of the characters. Great fun and full of humor. Well written. Loved it. But to move on to the other point about not liking a book if you don't like the characters...I think that is hard. Most of the time when I find a book riveting it has a terrible character that I hate. I am driven to read on because I want him to get his comeuppance. Dickens is great for that isn't he. But a book full of characters I don't like would be a tough journey.

Your book club sounds fantastic. Have you all read The Devil in the White City?

2:06 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Gary -- We have read The Devil and the White City. It was a great discussion and we all learned a lot about Chicago and how skyscrapers are built!

Here is our book club website, which is maintained by my husband. It's interesting to see what we've read over the years.

8:13 AM  

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