Most readers want fiction that is populated by likeable characters, but in the right hands, an unlikable character can add a bracing note of dissonance to a story.
Sarah N. Harvey’s Death Benefits features Arthur Jenkins, a 95-year-old world-renowned cellist, and his relationship with his 16-year-old grandson, Royce. Early in the story, Royce’s mother struggles to find a care aide for the aging and difficult Jenkins. She employs a Filipino woman who is “happy to work six days a week, twelve hours a day.” Jenkins exposes himself to her repeatedly to force her to quit. He is not a character to admire.
In Susin Nielsen’s Dear George Clooney Please Marry My Mom, the first-person narrator, 12-year-old Violet, is angry at her divorced father and resentful of his new wife and twin daughters. In the very first chapter, she tricks her toddler half-sisters into eating cat poo. She feels bad about it afterward – “but,” she says, “I also don’t think it called for the freak-out that followed.”
In both novels, the incidents are presented in a lighthearted spirit – we are obviously not supposed to be concerned about the sexual abuse of immigrant care workers or the dangers of taxoplasmosis. We are left in an uneasy relationship with the characters, however. Is Jenkins a loveable old codger or a nasty creep? Is Violet merely a scamp or is she cruel? Why would we want to spend time with either of them?
An unlikable character can be engaging, and even fascinating, if the story in which he or she appears contains an element of mystery. Early on in Death Benefits, we seem to be heading in that direction. Royce, at loose ends due to mono and a cross-country move to Victoria, takes on the daytime care of his grandfather. While the old man naps, Royce flips through photo albums and clippings, piecing together family history. He begins to interview Jenkins about his past, and a portrait of a celebrity appears, complete with famous friends, lovely ladies, and worldwide acclaim. Royce discovers that Jenkins was not quite as neglectful a father as his daughters claim. But there is no significant surprise or revelation, nothing to keep us caring about this cranky, crude old guy. There is no deathbed conversion: through a series of strokes and general decline Jenkins remains egotistical, manipulative, and a knee-jerk misogynist.
Much more interesting is the portrayal of Royce’s mother, dealing as she is with the heartbreak of an aged parent. She must confront the issues of dignity versus safety, the power shift that neither party desires, the division of responsibilities between adult siblings, and finally, end-of-life decisions, including euthanasia. Harvey pulls no punches in her portrait of a middle-aged woman facing these challenges.
Grafting this essentially adult dilemma onto the story of a teenage boy, however, doesn’t work. Though Harvey admirably steers clear of the cliché whereby a young person softens and saves an irascible elder, Royce’s teen concerns of girlfriends and cars don’t mesh with the main plot. Despite the presence of teen angst, irony, and pop culture references, this feels like an adult novel trying to get out.
Another way to successfully employ an unlikable character is to make her funny, witty, and lively – the kind of person who says and does things we have suppressed in ourselves. In Dear George Clooney, Violet takes charge of her mother’s love life by writing to the titular star and outlining her mother’s suitability as a love object. In a plot that moves jauntily along, Violet pursues her goal until she finally meets Clooney after slamming into his sports car with a golf cart. It is a satisfyingly slapstick scene.
Add to this the elements of misunderstanding with a best friend, the lure of the Grade 7 mean girl, embarrassment with parents, and reliably quippy chapter endings, and you’ve got the makings of a lighthearted, smart-talking middle-grade novel along the lines of Tish Cohen’s Zoe Lama books.
Violet, however, sits uneasily in this fiction. Passing references to OCD and the depth of her anger suggest a child in need of help. Like Royce’s mother, she seems to be a character out of a more serious novel. She is supposed to be a funny girl, and she does have a way with words, labelling one of her mother’s uncool boyfriends “Larry the Unibrow.” At other points in the story, however, her smart-alec take on the world has a sour edge. When her mother says that her current love interest wants to meet her, Violet answers, “Why? Is he a pedophile?” Violet does grow somewhat beyond her bitter self-absorption, but it’s hard to put up with her long enough to get to the golf cart, her change of heart, and the classic comedy ending of a wedding.
Into everyone’s life a few jerks will wander. What these two novels show is that unlikeable characters are every bit as difficult to manage in fiction as in life.