Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Neutral Main Character

I just read Alice Mattison's story, "Brooklyn Circle," in the latest New Yorker, and I don't even know how I feel about it. At first I was very much drawn in by her characters -- a middle-aged, Jewish New Yorker; her half-Jewish, half-black ex-husband who suddenly reappears in her life; and their overwrought 30-yr-old daughter. The writing is very good and smart and Mattison sets up some wonderfully interesting and compelling situations:the protagonist is still attracted to her ex; their daughter was either justly or unjustly arrested for arguing about the Iraq war. But as in so many stories these days, all the compelling situations are left entirely unresolved. They are set up, some lovely light is shined on them, and then the story ends.

Is this okay, just a short story thing? Because I know I have certainly done it. Ambiguity is interesting, and you don't want to tie up every single loose end in a tidy package at the end of the story. At the same it feels like a bit of a cheat to set up these complicated situations that readers have invested in emotionally, and then scoot out after putting the characters through a metaphoric journey and then dropping a hint or two as to possible outcomes. It feels formulaic, actually. Or maybe I'm jaded? See -- I don't know.

One other notable thing about this story is the invisibility of the protagonist, whose name is Con. Con is the least distinctive or developed character in the story, and the most interesting one -- the daughter -- spends the least time in it. We know very little about Con other than her social class and ethnicity, and a bit more about her husband, who has some personality quirks. I've always supposed that the penchant of writers for making their protagonist the least interesting person in the story is all about allowing the reader to identify with her. If the reader finds the main character too alien, the thinking goes, they won't be able to put himself in the protagonist's shoes. But is this really true? Again, it feels like an easy way out.

If a story doesn't do anything new or different, if it doesn't make any startling insights or show us any lives we didn't already know about, if we're not thrilled by its language or surprised by its empathy, if it's not funny or cathartic, then... what's it for?


5 Red Pandas said...

I had a similar "so what?" feeling after I finished that story last night. It had interesting elements, but it didn't add up to anything, really. I suspect that this is just a novel excerpt because I looked at the writer's credentials and it stated that she has a novel coming out. If it is a novel excerpt, then the unresolved ending makes sense. But it's annoying. Why publish novel excerpts? There are plenty of short stories out there.

the individual voice said...

Mattison skates the ice of "smart" contemporary issues like mixed-racial "radar" and free speech/anti-war issues in the context of blended/split family dynamics trying very hard to be the next Grace Paley but failing miserably because she lacks the voice. Hers is so flat in contrast. But mark my word, she'll still push herself out there as the next Grace Paley, despite her penchant for novels. Her novels are written very much like a series of connected short stories, so interesting she markets them as novels. Sly.