It’s disorienting, to say the least, to start reading a book expecting to like it, maybe even love it, and to find yourself irritated at each successive turn of the page. It feels like the dissolution of some unspoken pact with the writer—this was supposed to be the best part of my day and now I find myself avoiding it.
I was on a train back from Philadelphia with a hard-won advanced copy of Joshua Ferris’s new novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, which I’d practically begged from the publisher at the library conference I’d been attending. They were all out of them, they’d said—but wait! Here’s the last copy, hiding in a box under the table. I’d giddily taken it, and instead of shipping it home with the rest of the books I’d collected, I stuck it in my bag knowing I’d need something to keep me busy on the train home.
But there I was, passing through Trenton, New York, Stamford, growing increasingly annoyed. It’s not that the book wasn’t good. In all of his novels, Ferris has shown a knack for witty dialogue and for pacing that in any other book might seem circular, but in his novels is incredibly compelling. (Of course Then We Came to the End feels circuitous; it’s about, among other things, the banality of office relationships.)
It was the narrator, Paul O’Rourke, that was driving me nuts. Paul is a dentist, which, okay, not a good start for me, because while I’m sure dentists are generally perfectly fine, nice people, I can’t claim that they’re my favorite people to go see. But more importantly, he’s self-isolating: he spends each night watching Red Sox games or his tapes of past Red Sox games, because on the weekends New York is too full of tourists, and he definitely doesn’t want to spend his time hanging out with “a bunch of dweeby dentists.” He irritates those around him in order to alleviate his boredom: after three days in Europe with his then-girlfriend, touring churches and cathedrals and suggesting that they party in those churches and then, when that doesn’t go over well, raising the possibility of church-side blow-jobs, he starts to make and repeat a joke that only he finds funny: “I started calling it ‘Eurpoe’ and didn’t stop until we touched down in Newark.” Unsurprisingly, not long after that, he and Connie break up. And he’s obsessive: he claims to abhor the internet but every month he Googles himself and when the same (sole) bad review of his dental practice comes up, he’d “curse out loud and feel the victim of injustice.”
But okay, at the same time, I admit to laughing at a lot of this. It’s all funny in an absurd way, the way off-the-cuff cultural commentary often is. But the layer of unreliability overlaying it all was what did me in. The best way I can describe it is this: several times throughout the novel, entire conversations, usually with his dental hygienist, Mrs. Convoy, are reported as one-sided. The first iteration comes after Paul has sneaked a smoke outside the office:
She’d sniff at me like a bloodhound and then she’d say, “What exactly have you been doing?” I’d tell her, she’d say, “Scrutiny does not kill people. Smoking kills people. What kind of example do you think you’re setting for your patients by sneaking off to smoke cigarettes? I’d tell her, she’d say, “They do not need a reminder of ‘the futility of it all’ from their dental professional. When did you take up smoking again?” I’d tell her, she’d say, “Oh, for heaven’s sake. Then why did you tell everyone that you had quit?” I’d tell her, she’d say, “I do not see how the occasional show of concern is ’utterly strangulating.’ I would like to see you live up to your potential, that is all. Don’t you wish you had more self control?”
And on and on for a couple of pages. Funny, yes, and brilliant from a technical standpoint. But even though Paul’s side of the conversation is fairly self-evident, this dialogue structure also removes all possibility of scrutinizing his replies. There’s no way to say just how blithe or even hurtful he’s being in the face of Mrs. Convoy’s concerns, and there’s no way to say just how much he’s misreading her.
It’s not that I need, or even want, my first-person narrators to be good, or kind, or particularly enjoyable to be around. A story with a flawless narrator or protagonist is not a story, or at least not a particularly interesting one. I cheered last year when Claire Messud criticized her interviewer at Publishers Weekly when the interviewer said that she wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, the narrator of Messud’s most recent novel, The Woman Upstairs. When I read the novel several months later—intrigued, more than anything else, by that interview—Nora’s anger made me, at times, want to put the novel down and get some space from it. But it also drew me into the narrative. Nora’s anger, her very unlikeability, is what makes The Woman Upstairs compelling: it’s what makes Nora feel real, and it clarifies just how wounded she is by the events of the novel.
No—it’s a certain combination of unreliability and unlikeability that drives me up the wall, paired with a certain humor and a relentlessness. Maybe this says more about me than it does about the kind of self-indulgent, unreliable narrator that propels Ferris’s novel. The stories with this sort of narrator tend to go down the same road: a cycle of intense and persistent self-sabotage leads in some way to the narrator’s downfall, and though there’s always the possibility for redemption, it’s usually passed over in favor of a slightly different form of self-sabotage. That storyline makes my skin crawl: I see the downfall coming a mile away, know that if the narrator would just listen to the people around him he’d be able to avoid it. I want to save the narrator from himself, and ultimately, I can’t.
I use the male pronoun purposefully, and perhaps that’s just it: this narrator is, more often than not, male. And he pops up all over the place in contemporary fiction. He shows up in George Saunders’s stories, like the narrator of “Adams,” who relies on the term “wonk”—as in, “So I wonk him in the back of the head and down he goes. When he stands up, I wonk him again and down he goes”—to downplay, and make humorous, the fact that he’s actually beating the crap out of his neighbor, and later his neighbor’s wife, and oh, also his neighbor’s kids. And he’s common in Jim Shepard’s stories, too.
In “The Netherlands Lives with Water,” an engineer works to protect Rotterdam from climate-change-caused floods while consistently failing to tell his wife about his newly-discovered inheritance that could enable them to send their son to safety. When they first begin dating, his future wife complains, “I ask a question and you ask another one…If I ask what your old girlfriend was like, you ask what anyone’s old girlfriend is like.” Their exchanges and the narrator’s descriptions are consistently and darkly funny, but also heartbreaking, because the narrator continually deflects all responsibility until everything comes crashing down. Similarly, in the opening of “Boys Town,” the narrator’s mother exclaims that “The story of your life is that you’re not to blame for anything,” to which the narrator responds, “It is always somebody else’s fault,” entirely overlooking any source of his mother’s criticism (154). That’s not to say that this kind of narrator is always male—the female narrator from Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! comes to mind—but overwhelmingly it seems to be.
The female unreliable and unlikeable narrators I’ve come across always seem to function a bit differently. Take Messud’s Nora, for example. She is unlikeable, yes, and she is, to a certain extent, unreliable: she is telling her story from a place of anger, and of pain, so of course she isn’t telling it entirely straight. But her pain and the actions that result from it arise from empathy, from years of caring from others and then having an intense, caring friendship pulled out from under her, not from the absence of caring for others or the failure to communicate concern and support. The Woman Upstairs has funny parts, but they’re funny because of the circumstances, not because Nora can’t relate to those around her.
And take another female writer whose—typically female—narrators are notoriously unreliable. In Amy Hempel’s stories, it’s the narrators’ very unreliability that draws me to them, because there is a compassion underlying the cruelty of their actions; the avoidances in the narration suggest the flaws the narrators cannot bear to face head-on. In “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” each excuse and cry of grief covers up a palpable sense of shame that the narrator failed to be there for her dying friend. And in “The Afterlife,” the omissions show the narrator’s isolation: it’s not until her father’s new girlfriend says “Take up space!” while she’s out with them that it becomes clear just how alone, and stuck, the narrator is. There is constant self-sabotage in these stories, but rarely do I get the sense that the narrator is interested in playing it for laughs.
There’s a long history of unreliable narrators in fiction, and for good reason: human beings don’t just lie to other people when necessary; we often lie to ourselves, too. Unreliable narrators allow writers to get at that simple truth, to investigate the ways in which we construct certain ideas of our essential selves, even as our actions seem to undermine those ideas. They allow a story to not just be about what happened—will the friend in “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” die?—but about how the person telling the story dealt with that moment of drama, or rather, didn’t deal with it.
But the gender differences in unreliability I’ve described seem to point to something bigger. I’m a firm believer that although most fiction isn’t autobiographical in the sense that the events of a story actually happened to the writer, writers tend to write about what they find psychologically compelling, and they tend to write about what they, on some level, know. Which means a proliferation of characters, particularly male characters, who lack empathy probably points to a proliferation of people, particularly men, who lack empathy. And I certainly don’t think every man on the face of the earth currently lacks empathy—I don’t meet a guy and think, huh, probably you don’t have an empathetic bone in your body since you’re male. But I do know that women are, overwhelmingly, taught to be caretakers, to be watchful, to adapt their sense of self and the stories they tell themselves to what looks “right.” Whereas men, on the whole, have a certain privilege to just live their lives. Culturally speaking, especially in the middle-class, white worlds of these particular novels and stories, women are trained to be empathetic, whereas men are trained to act.
Which is just the way it is, and I don’t think it’s the writer’s job to write polemics about how the world “should” be—that tends to dip quickly into work that is more propaganda than art. But it also strikes me that a cavalcade of fiction in which a lack of male empathy is played for laughs suggests a failure: a failure to do more than just reflect.
Because ultimately, it’s the accumulation of narrators that fit this specific unreliable mold that gets me. Narrators like Paul O’Rourke aren’t just telling some lies to make themselves look better; they’re also completely failing to understand how their lies and misreadings are hurting other people. And these moments of hurting other people are played for laughs. Taken en mass, these narrators feel like a glorification of a certain sort of clueless male who is allowed to fail in his dealings with others—who is allowed, even encouraged, to fail at empathy.
Given a choice, then, I’ll usually read a book with a different sort of narrator. But I also recognize that trends in fiction arise because there’s something essential being reflected in them; my avoiding these books won’t make them go away.
Maybe it’s actually important that we, and male writers in particular, write narrators like Paul over and over and over again. Maybe the proliferation of Paul O’Rourkes will start to feel tired and overused to a broader range of readers. Maybe then, in narrative and in life, we can move away from this and can stop celebrating and finding funny the persistent failure to empathize.
As To Rise Again at a Decent Hour progresses—as the book spirals deeper and deeper into its central mystery—Paul does seem to start to realize what some of his issues are. The book doesn’t end entirely on a redemptive note, but nor did I get the feeling in the book’s final pages that he was going to keep doing what he was doing, that he was going to keep shitting on those around him. So maybe, just maybe, there’s some hope.