I’ve posted for the last 2 Mondays on giving a second chance to a book I disliked the first time around, Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace.” It took urging from two friends for whose reading recommendations I have great respect and a public commitment here on this blog for me to do it, and I’m glad I did for all the reasons I stated last week.
“Disgrace” wasn’t the first book I initially disliked and set aside, to find on returning to and finishing it that it was an excellent work. I’d also tried John Updike’s “Rabbit, Run,” a modern American classic that’s on every list of the greatest 20th century American novels, some years ago, disliked it and set it aside, returned to it a few months ago, and finished it, on the recommendation of one of the same friends who praised “Disgrace.”
On giving it another go, I still found the characters universally repellent for their complete selfishness and parochialism. But I did finish not only it but its sequel, “Rabbit Redux,” in which the characters reach new depths of dreadfulness.
Having done so, I agree with my friend that Updike does write beautifully. I can visualize the characters in a scene, feel what Rabbit’s wife is feeling postpartum, see the inside of the car in which Rabbit drives all night as well as the outside night itself, and feel the wind rushing past. Dreadful though the characters are, they’re well-rounded and real. And I’m thinking that even dreadful people have stories and deserve to be written about just as much as those with more altruistic or noble temperaments. They’re part of life, after all.
Martha Nussbaum and Azar Nafisi both speak eloquently of how fiction and the humanities support democracy. And now that I’ve so recently read these novels featuring characters I so disliked, Emily St. John Mandel’s article, “In Praise of Unlikable Characters,” in The Millions, an online literary publication, seems especially timely.
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