The Humorous, Rambling Novel with a Bumbling Straight, White, Male Protagonist

I’m sure I’m not the first to notice, but when did this subgenre emerge? With Kingsley Amis? John Updike? Richard Ford is later but a master of the form.

Lately I’ve been reading it all over the place—in Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision, in Brock Clarke’s An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, and in Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole, which I haven’t finished and therefore shouldn’t comment on, but the standands for blogging are low, and I’m running with that.

I have some questions.

1) How are we meant to sustain interest in and empathy for someone who is dunder-headed, unaware, and seemingly impervious both to others and to change? Sure, these characters are funny, and that goes a long way, but it doesn’t go all the way. And the arch tone often paints the writers into a corner from which they can’t carry off anything serious.

Example: Toward the end of An Arsonist’s Guide, there’s a scene of graphic violence. It’s horrifying. It should shake the narrator to his bones. But his consciousness is too blunted to fully react. And then it feels as though the novel is not reacting, as though the novel can’t be bothered to shake itself awake long enough to register that something mind-blowingly traumatic has happened. Which is where the novel stops caring for us as readers. Which, you know, sucks.

2) Are there any female bumblers out there? Is there a novel about the straight, white woman who can’t get her shit together? Would this be the Bridget Jones genre? I suppose it would be. Has anyone out there read those novels? Is it the same thing—i.e., you want to take the protagonist by the shoulders and shout what would seem to be some very obvious platitudes in the vicinity of her ears? And what, exactly, is the point of that?

3) Is this a straight, white thing? It can’t be, right?

My working thesis is that it’s a lot harder to write about people who are conscious and feeling and know what they’re doing but who get into trouble anyway. Anyway, that’s my thesis for June 17, 2009.

Leave a Reply