So, I just finished another book where I didn't like the protagonist. Again, the writing in this book is glorious, even superb, and yet the book failed me. I relished the previous book by this author, Andre Acimen, whose "Call Me By Your Name" had me weeping throughout the whole thing. Unfortunately, while I see glimpses of similar brilliance in "Eight White Nights," I only see glimpses. And I think the main problem is that I cannot stand the protagonist of this novel, a man without a name, which isn't a problem per se as lots of book use this affectation, and by now it doesn't appear affected so much as expected in novels of a certain ilk. In fact, it's beginning to rank up there with the overwhelming abundance of heart attacks that seem to be populating novels these days. No-named protagonists with dodgy hearts. A new genre. You read it here first.
I'm not going to give anything like a synopsis of this book because that's not the point of "discussion." All you need to know is that glue of this novel is fairly simple: two characters meet at a party and discover that they are soul mates. Unfortunately, this kinship is largely based on taking snarky potshots at other people. No one is immune. The hosts are sneered at, the other guests at the party are ridiculed, and the ex-boyfriend, who is also at this party, is pitied (and ridiculed to the point where this couple have lunch at his grandparents house, and he's such a non-entity that even his grandparents are willing to accept another man in his place). This kinship is cemented in that they speak in a shared "language," which as far as I could tell really just meant that they were equally rude and cruel. Instead of marking these two as "meant for each other," in my opinion, this snark-speak only put the reader at a huge disadvantage. We fall into the same category as the people around them. Out of the loop. Confused. We feel inadequate because they get it and we don't. I will not deny that these characters have an instantaneous rapport that is unique to them, so much so that I found myself wishing I had the Clift Notes.
Of course, there are many successful novels where the protagonists struggle against world at large, and they have to fight it out alone and, dear god, is Frodo going to make it to Mount Doom and destroy the ring? But although Frodo's quest alienated him from the Fellowship, there was never any sense that I, as the reader, was alienated. Nope, I was right there, sitting on Frodo's shoulder, feeling his conflict, his desperation, and his despair.
Within the first fives pages of this novel, the protagonist is passionately in lust with a woman (who is allowed to have a name, which is Clara) whom he meets at a party. Acimen struggles mightily to include the reader in this immediate passion, however, the device he chooses is too limited, therefore, no name's fascination for her remains puzzling--a simple introduction cannot hold up under all the weight that the author demands of it--with the upshot is that there's an immediate distance created between the writer and the reader from the very beginning of the novel. Usually this distance happens in the last third of a book (see my review of Hornby's "Juliet, Naked") because the writer just doesn't know how to finish a book and tacks on an ending that leaves the reader cold. Here, this distance happens immediately, which becomes a sad harbinger for the rest of the novel. These protagonists go in a direction the reader cannot follow, which is the antithesis of what a writer is striving for. As a writer what you want to achieve with your reader is a relationship so profound that as they are reading you want them to smell a woman's perfume when she leaves a room and the toothpaste on a man's breath before he kisses her. And I think that Acimen felt that the lush detail and truly beautiful descriptions of New York in winter would achieve that. It didn't for me.
I read this novel on the heels of a visit to New York, and my hotel was right next to the World Trade Center site, so you'll understand when I say, why in the flying fuck should I care about a bunch of elitist privileged New Yorkers who don't seem to have any visible means of support and whose idea of a good time is to engage in verbal duels at parties? I didn't at all care about them; that's too mundane. I actively disliked them.
And this is the problem with the unlikable protagonist. Because if you make them too "special," as is the case here, make them too unique, then the reader cannot help but feel that the characters are sneering at them as well. That the reader would be cheerfully lumped in with the masses of people who aren't as educated or smart or witty or brilliant in their mean-spirited patter. A successful novel ropes in the reader so that even if you don't want to, you find yourself identifying or at the very least understanding a character so much so that you care what happens to them even if you don't care for them. It's a fine line to walk (one that I admit is way beyond my ability). I wish that Acimen had achieved that balance. As it was, I found myself reading about extremely selfish people who I would never want to meet. I finished the book because the writing was so achingly descriptive, but ultimately it didn't work for me.
I can think of three novelists who have walked this fine and difficult line: one is Nabokov in "Lolita" (Humbert Humbert is odious but you find him compelling); Patrick Suskind and his protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, in "Perfume"; and Muriel Spark with her novel "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie." I think these characters are monsters to varying degrees, and yet they are compelling monsters. The characterization is so wonderful that you find yourself captivated by them, empathizing with them even though you scorn yourself for it. As readers we don't want to feel that we are pressing our faces against the glass. We want to be on the other side, no matter how uncomfortable or bizarre the terrain. And we most certainly don't want to be at a party and suspect that the couple in the corner is sneering at what we're wearing and our penchant for cheap vodka.