-Humanizing villains by taking up their perspective
-Eliciting sympathy for (potentially villainous) characters through descriptions of their external environment
An earlier post touched on why Stephen King holds such appeal for mass audiences, hinting that a text’s mass appeal and depiction and/or induction of existential suffering are inversely correlated: more suffering, less appeal and vice versa. Another work of King’s I will use to discuss what qualifies as “good” fiction, just in time for the series adaptation, is 11/22/63 (2011), specifically in the context of Don DeLillo’s Libra (1988).
11/22/63’s protagonist, Jake Epping, travels back in time in an attempt to stop Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of President Kennedy, which he believes will significantly impact history as we know it for the better. The portal he does this through, for some reason, always takes its users to 1958, and in the years leading up to the assassination, Jake witnesses much domestic squabbling between Lee and his wife, Marina, and his mother, Marguerite (both real-life figures). Jake is there when the Oswalds’ plane first lands from Russia, to which Lee has defected but now returned with his Russian wife. The first time Jake sees Lee he observes:
Lee’s expression was . . . amused? Knowing? Maybe both. The tiniest suggestion of a smile dimpled the corners of his mouth. His nondescript hair was neatly combed. He was, in fact, the perfect A. J. Squared Away in his pressed white shirt, khakis, and shined shoes. He didn’t look like a man who had just completed a journey halfway around the world; there wasn’t a wrinkle on him and not a trace of beard-shadow on his cheeks. He was just twenty-two years old, and looked younger—like one of the teenagers in my last American Lit class.
For the most part here, Jake observes Lee as he would any other human being, comparing him to his own students, though in this passage Jake’s already reading too much into Lee based on future actions. Jake also observes:
Lee took the baby. Marina smiled her gratitude, and when her lips parted, I saw that one of her teeth was missing. The others were discolored, one of them almost black. The contrast with her creamy skin and gorgeous eyes was jarring.
This passage seems to be on the one hand implying Lee has rescued Marina from worse circumstances—or is it her present circumstances of being with Lee that’s such a contrast to her natural beauty? Future observations hint it’s the latter, as Jake watches them move into their house:
During the moving-in process, Marina stood on the crabgrassy lawn with June in her arms, looking at her new home with an expression of dismay that needed no translation. …
I thought Marina might point at the house and say no like, I no like—she had that much English down—but she only handed Lee the baby and climbed to the porch, tottering for a moment on the loose step, then catching her balance.
And not long after:
Marina approached Lee, holding the baby like a shield. They talked. Then they shouted. Family solidarity was gone with the wind; Marguerite had seen to that. Lee took the baby, rocked her in the crook of one arm, then—with absolutely no warning—punched his wife in the face. Marina went down, bleeding from the mouth and nose and crying loudly. Lee looked at her. The baby was also crying. Lee stroked June’s fine hair, kissed her cheek, rocked her some more. Marina came back into view, struggling to her feet. Lee kicked her in the side and down she went again. I could see nothing but the cloud of her hair.
Leave him, I thought, even though I knew she wouldn’t. Take the baby and leave him. Go to George Bouhe. Warm his bed if you have to, but get away from that skinny, mother-ridden monster posthaste.
Emphasis on Marina’s poor English, use of the word “monster,” and antagonism toward Lee’s mother, Marguerite. Jake actually sees Marguerite before he sees Lee, talking to her other son:
“He’s a damn Commie, Ma, and he’s not coming home. Get used to it.”
“You call me!” she shrilled. Her grim little face was set. She stood with her feet planted apart, like a boxer ready to absorb a blow. Any blow. Every blow. Her eyes glared from behind black-rimmed harlequin glasses. Her kerchief was double-knotted beneath her chin. The rain had begun to fall now, but she paid it no mind. She drew in breath and raised her voice to something just short of a scream. “I need to hear from my good boy, you hear?”
The passage begins with respect for a woman who’s been through some hard times, but by the concluding almost-scream has devolved into a caricature that prompts Jake to think:
I wouldn’t see Lee Oswald for another year and a half, and I remained determined to stop him, but I already felt more sympathy for him than I ever had for Frank Dunning.
Frank Dunning being another murderer Jake will try to prevent from murdering by murdering. So we’ve got a portrait of Lee as monstrous, though not incapable of incurring Jake’s sympathy—thanks to the fact that his mother is a monster. Though Jake is reluctant to kill Lee without proof he acted alone, seeming to give fair consideration to the idea that there might be more to this whole JFK assassination than history’s told us, personal circumstances interfere: as Jake’s about to see whether it’s true Lee actually tries to assassinate a general in the weeks before Kennedy’s killing, Jake’s girlfriend Sadie’s psycho ex takes her hostage, and, choosing his love over his mission for the moment, Jake abandons his spying on Lee. Ultimately, Jake decides to carry out his mission without confirmation of Lee’s (sole) guilt; hey, he can always go back and reset the timeline if he needs to, though eventually it will be revealed that there are far graver consequences for doing so than originally thought (every time you time travel you create another reality, and the more realities there are floating around, the more likely all of them are to implode). In order to succeed in the mission he’s invested so much in and on which the fate of the free world is riding, Jake must sacrifice the love he’s acquired in the course of doing so: he kills Oswald, but not before Oswald kills Sadie.
Here is how Lee appears to Jake in Lee’s final moments, as he’s being shot multiple times by police:
He danced like a doll in the hazy, sawdusty light, and that terrible snarl never left his face. He wasn’t a man at the end, I tell you; he was something else. Whatever gets into us when we listen to our worst angels.
King refrains from using the word “monster” again, but still. Pretty damn close. That use of “us” there almost redeems it, like this could have happened to anyone, but to me this feels forced, an afterthought. Lee feels far more excluded from humanity here at the conclusion than included.
Jake, of course, is in a position to see Lee as evil, observing him from the context of someone who’s specifically trying to stop him from killing the leader of the free world. Still, one would hope a fair portrayal would humanize Lee to some extent. Does seeing him stroke his daughter’s hair as he kicks his wife achieve this? For me, not quite. Neither does this rendition of Marina, when she comes knocking on Jake’s door:
Marina either ignored my surprised expression or didn’t notice it. She had problems of her own. “Please excuse, have you seen my hubka?” She bit her lips and shook her head a little. “Hubs-bun.” She attempted to smile, and she had those nicely refurbished teeth to smile with, but it still wasn’t very successful. “Sorry, sir, don’t speak good Eenglish. Am Byelorussia.”
“Goodbye, mister sir. Many thanks. You say nutting?”
“Okay,” I said. “Mum’s the word.” She didn’t get that, but nodded and looked relieved when I put my finger across my lips.
Jake, if not the author, is just a wee bit condescending, with the excessive amount of focus on Marina’s poor English (“You say nutting?” could read “You say nothing?” and we’d still get the gist of the Russian accent). In any case, where all these characters land on the moral compass is unequivocally clear. Lee is the villain; Marina is the victim; it’s all very black-and-white, cut and dry, except perhaps for Marguerite’s being a villain turning Lee into one with her “pernicious brand of smotherlove.”
Marguerite Oswald was out on the passenger side almost before it stopped rolling. Today the red kerchief had been replaced by a white one with black polka dots, but the nurse’s shoes were the same, and so was the look of dissatisfied pugnacity. She had found them, just as Robert had said she would.
Hound of heaven, I thought. Hound of heaven.
I was looking out through the crack between the drapes, but saw no point in powering up the mike. This was a story that needed no soundtrack.
Of course it doesn’t, because Jake’s presumptions have already filled it all in.
Marguerite gives the impression of a shrieking psychopath pretty much the moment she hits the page, offering little insight into what made her that way or at the least some softening instant of vulnerability in which you feel you (might) understand her. Though it’s possible I’m overlooking some such moment somewhere, as it is a large book, the feeling I came away with after reading it was that the Oswalds here were distinctly two-dimensional. For more passages that sound much like others already provided:
Marguerite came puffing down the street from the Winscott Road bus stop. This evening she was wearing blue slacks that were unfortunate, considering the generous spread of her butt. … She walked up the porch steps (once more deftly avoiding the bad one) and marched in without knocking.
The spread of Marguerite’s butt is surely more generous than Jake’s capacity for compassion. Though the characterizations themselves could ultimately use more dimension, King does use a nice device of characterizing via reactions to the faulty porch step: Marina stumbles but regains her balance, Marguerite avoids it altogether (without the familiarity of actually living there) and Lee repeatedly trips hard on it and gets pissed.
On the heels of another time Lee up and punches Marina in the face (this time for having let his mother in):
Marina went to them and Lee gave her the baby. Then, before she could walk away, he hugged her. She stood silently inside his arms for a moment, then shifted the baby so she could hug him back with one arm. His mouth was buried in her hair, and I was pretty sure I knew what he was saying: the Russian words for I’m sorry. I had no doubt that he was. He would be sorry next time, too. And the time after that.
Marina took June back into what had been Rosette’s bedroom. Lee stood where he was for a moment, then went to the fridge, took something out, and began to eat it.
Here we see Lee doing something human and other than beating someone…but it’s to demonstrate his indifference to beating someone. King, in providing a portrait of Lee, has relied on what ultimately amounts to–in this rendition at least–a reductive theory to explain Lee’s violence and aggression: that Marina bears the brunt of his rage from his mother consistently emasculating him. This theory could have more facets than the note that gets hit in the text over and over, kind of like you-know-who beating his wife:
Marina added her two cents’ worth: “Mamochka, Lee say no.”
Marguerite laughed merrily. “‘Lee say no, Lee say no.’ Honey, Lee always say no, this little man been doin it all his life and it doesn’t mean a thing. Ma takes care of him.” She pinched his cheek, the way a mother would pinch the cheek of a six-year-old after he has done something naughty but undeniably cute. If Marina had tried that, I’m sure Lee would have knocked her block off.
Don DeLillo, on the other hand, implicitly reinforces sympathy for Lee from the moment he’s introduced, both by depicting aspects of his life that are far removed from the public dialog about him, and by the physical details he includes about Lee’s surroundings. Granted, Lee is introduced much earlier in Libra, being one of its central characters instead of just a critical one relegated to the periphery—which is precisely why I think Libra is more ambitious, challenging and rewarding than 11/22/63. In the latter, one of the last century’s most infamous villains remains a villain, while in the former he becomes a human being, and even more than that, as the much larger forces he’s at the mercy of are fleshed out: he is both human being and cog at the end of an intricate political machine. DeLillo takes up Lee’s perspective rather than just gazing at him from the outside, as King does, as we’ve done ever since Lee was swept up in the detritus-choked stream of history. Though Libra’s plot is supposedly as fictional as 11/22’s time-traveling—Lee being in Libra simply the triggerman at the front end of a complex CIA conspiracy to incite war with an assassination attempt—it’s certainly nowhere near as far-fetched, and reinforces, along with the astrological title, that even though these might not be the exact forces the real-life Lee found himself at the mercy of, he was inevitably at the mercy of some we haven’t considered and would not personally, in the context of our 21st century lives, be able to comprehend.
This is what good fiction does: reveals the humanity in those whom we would ordinarily consider the most inhumane. 11/22’s plot would be more interesting to me if Jake Epping accidentally became friends with Lee and wound up trying to help him, rather than the bulk of the plot consisting of Jake dealing with obstacles from “the obdurate past” trying to stop his interference, obstacles that are sometimes connected to Jake’s personal choices, but that are often completely random.
In Libra’s first chapter we meet Lee as a child, who, riding at the very front of a subway, is presented to us “smashing through the dark,” as tragic a circumstance for a person or description of life in general as I’ve ever heard. The chapter is bookended by Lee’s subway-riding, which in being repeatedly referenced gains the substance of metaphor:
It did not seem odd to him that the subway held more compelling things than the famous city above. There was nothing important out there, in the broad afternoon, that he could not find in purer form in these tunnels beneath the streets.
This passage reinforces the idea that the real truth lies beneath the surface of things—because there’s always more to something than just its surface. King’s Lee is all surface; DeLillo’s burrows inside.
In the first chapter, we see Lee being a person, humanized by simple facts and actions other than wife-beating: “He rode the subways. He spent serious time at the zoo.” And “Nobody knew how hard it was for him to read.” We also meet Marguerite, whom Lee is living with by himself at this juncture:
”I love my United States but I don’t look forward to a courtroom situation, which is what happened with Mr. Ekdahl, accusing me of uncontrollable rages. They will point out that they have cautioned us officially. I will tell them I’m a person with no formal education who holds her own in good company and keeps a neat house. We are a military family. This is my defense.”
Here Marguerite is defending herself to a truancy officer for Lee’s skipping school, a situation that offers her precisely the defense she’s denied in 11/22. You can hear her Russian accent through the rhythm of her words rather than from the individual words’ misspellings. We’ve also learned that she’s gone through a divorce with a man who claims she “rages,” which she claims is a made-up accusation, and we are left unable to believe completely either Marguerite’s or Mr. Ekdahl’s version of events, knowing the truth lies somewhere in the middle. DeLillo manages to make Marguerite overbearing and sympathetic, rendering vividly their close-knit environment, the smells in the bathroom they share. You feel Marguerite’s desperation as her life is summed up as moves to successively smaller apartments, and understand why she might be so overbearing. She also defends Lee, downplaying the importance of his pulling a knife on his brother’s bride—a potentially monstrous aspect of Lee introduced early on that’s really a vulnerability higher powers will use to exploit him when they need an unstable front man to be the fall guy.
Let’s meet Libra’s Marina:
She wore shorts like any housewife in America. She thought she was in a dream at first, walking on the street in bare legs, with her hair cut short, looking in shopwindows. She saw things you could not buy in Russia if you had unlimited wealth, if you had money spilling out of your closets. She knew she hadn’t lived in the world long enough to make comparisons, and Russia suffered terribly in the war, but it was impossible to see all this furniture, these racks and racks of clothing without being struck by amazement.
They had very little money, practically no money. But Marina was happy just to walk the aisles of the Safeway near Robert’s house. The packages of frozen food. The colors and abundance.
Lee got angry one night, coming back from a day of looking for work. He told her she was becoming an American in record-breaking time.
They were like people anywhere, people starting life a second time. If they quarreled it was only because he had a different nature in America and that was the only way he could love.
Neon was a revelation, those gay lights in windows and over movie marquees.
Marina is happy here, for one thing (as reinforced by the description of the environment in the final sentence). Her natural adjustment to an unfamiliar country is shown by her amazed reaction to the clothes and goods rather than her poor English. And, without predominantly laying the blame at Marguerite’s doorstep, this passage also provides us some insight into the motives for Lee’s domestic abuse, which doesn’t rear it’s ugly head with a punch in the face every time Marina turns around, but slowly builds from the frustrations that anyone could identify with—difficulty finding work, a wife being seduced toward the opposition of your principles. We also get access to Marina’s justifications for staying: she understands Lee’s violence as a form of love, which would mean the more violent he is, the less likely she is to leave—ah, love!
Wikipedia’s description of Libra summarizes its presentation of Lee nicely:
Oswald is portrayed as an odd outcast of a man, whose overtly communist political views cause him difficulties fitting into American society. He is not portrayed sympathetically, nor is he castigated; he is treated fairly in the novel, yet is not a character easy to attach to. He loves his wife, yet beats her; he dotes on his children yet he mistreats his mother. He is not shown to be a madman with absurd ideologies, but well-read and intelligent. However, the book also indicates that he is dyslexic and has great difficulty both in writing letters and reading books (he is described reading the works of Karl Marx slowly). He could be described as a pawn easily manipulated by others. But there is also continually a tendency to use this dyslexia as a wider theme in the issue of ‘reading’ situations, and more widely still the human difficulty in understanding themselves and the human situation.
Compare this to Wikipedia’s description of 11/22‘s portrayal of Lee:
Oswald, who is vocal about his support for Communist causes, is depicted as an ill-tempered loner who acts out of a self-absorbed desire for fame.
To go back to the description of Libra‘s Lee, I suppose I don’t make much of a distinction between a character being treated “sympathetically” and “fairly”; Wikipedia must equate “sympathetic” with treating a character as all good, angelic, without flaws, but to me “sympathetic” means human, which means flaws, mixed in with the good stuff. DeLillo was criticized for being a “bad citizen” after writing this novel, for “blaming America for Oswald’s act of derangement.” This particular critic believes novelists should be “constrained by concern for truthfulness,” i.e., faithful to historical fact, as if we were academic historians. But our jobs are something else. As DeLillo puts it,
Being called a “bad citizen” is a compliment to a novelist, at least to my mind. That’s exactly what we ought to do. We ought to be bad citizens. We ought to, in the sense that we’re writing against what power represents, and often what government represents, and what the corporation dictates, and what consumer consciousness has come to mean. In that sense, if we’re bad citizens, we’re doing our job.