What makes a character likable? I’m probably the wrong person to ask, because as a reader, I abided Humbert Humbert’s sick fascination with little girls, Raskolnikov’s homicidal mania, and Holden Caulfield’s all-too-obvious privilege.
I’ll tolerate a good deal of mania so long as the language is bewitching and there’s humanity beneath the characters’ strange longings. When I open a book, I’m along for the ride, and I’ve never really expected to empathize fully with the voice that drives the narrative. Reading involves engagement -- a mix of attachment and detachment as one is potentially seduced or repulsed by a voice, drawn in or put off by the behavior of the characters. As a fan of existential novels, I’ve shared headspace with many a tortured male puzzling through the peculiarities of the daily, the absurdities of the age, and the entropic pull of doing nothing in the face of an overwhelming world. Would I want to sit next to any of them at a dinner party? Probably not. But that’s not what reading is about.
Anna, the protagonist of MY FAVOURITE MANSON GIRL, is not a “nice girl” -- she is judgmental, her language is far from politically correct, and she’s made some bad choices for which she’s not altogether sorry at the story’s start. Anna has been let down, rather badly, by her family and instead of responding with transcendent kindness, she’s lonely, reactive, and searching. In short, she is a complicated human being in an existential predicament. As the title would suggest, the novel references some of history’s least likable females, the Manson girls, as both a metaphor and warning for the perils of girlhood. By the end of the novel, I’d like to think that Anna has gone on a journey -- not so much from nasty girl to nice -- but from less empathetic human to more empathetic human. The degree of change in her character is hardly seismic, but it’s the small step on which one might imagine a larger journey to begin.
At a reading this spring, a young man came up to me and said, a bit sheepishly, that he really liked my book. He he found this a bit weird, the novel being told by a fifteen year old girl and all. Anna was, he was slow to admit, someone with whom he could identify almost in spite of himself. That a young man enjoys a novel populated almost entirely by women does not surprise me in the least -- what saddens me is that it took a college class for him to be pushed to make that leap. These leaps across identity--all identity categories--are important because they grow empathy. In a world of ever-shortening attention spans and snap-judgments, the novel offers the broad canvas for complexity that social media makes almost impossible. So I’d suggest that for your next read, you pull up a chair next to that prickly woman you’ve been avoiding. Let Elisa Albert’s wildly inappropriate narrator take you through the days AFTER BIRTH of her first child, or watch four female factory works discover their real calling disposing of bodies in Natsuo Kirino’s OUT. Ever heard of Margaret Millar? Check out THE FIEND for a mental ride as wild as Nabokov’s. Allow yourself the surprise and delight of the difficult female.