The Antihero and the Book Club

Several evenings ago, I attended a book club meeting where we discussed my latest novel No Portrait in the Gilded Frame. I appreciated the opportunity. As opposed to facing readers in bookstores and public libraries, where the attendance is unpredictable, and the dialogue can often be affected by rules and time limitations, this book club took place in an intimate setting that allowed a direct and helpful exchange of ideas. We met in the spacious apartment of a friend. Floor to ceiling windows on the 7th floor offered stunning views of the San Diego Convention Center and the nearby waterfront hotels illuminated by festive holiday lights.

After an appetizer and a glass of wine, we took our seats. The leader of the book club introduced me to the group — ten people altogether, all avid readers with a penchant for friendly debate. They first voted on the next book they would be reading — In the Distance, by Herman Diaz, finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer. Then the moderator said they had all read and enjoyed my book and asked me to start the conversation by telling them what motivated me to write it.

I shared with them that my main character, Miriam, was based on a real person, a beautiful woman I met at a party when I was in my twenties and lived in Israel. She was studying Fine Arts at the University of Haifa. Like me, she had immigrated to Israel from Romania, but she had made the journey alone. I saw this as a mark of courage. We had hardly spoken a few words before she told me, without hesitation, that her goal was to meet a wealthy man, sweep him off his feet and have him take care of her for the rest of her life. I was intrigued. This was at a time when the future was stretching endlessly ahead of us, and I was full of ambition and dreams of independence. A few years later I ran into her in the United States. She was with a man two decades her senior, and obviously very wealthy. They weren’t married. She had two children by him. We spent an evening together, and that was the last time I saw her. Through the grapevine, I heard later that her partner had died, and that after a painful and protracted battle for her inheritance, she had returned with her children to Israel where she lived a sheltered and secluded life.

Her image and unusual life stayed with me over the years, and eventually I decided to write about her. Initially I planned the piece as a novella, but the ideas kept pouring out of me. Over the course of three years I imagined Miriam’s childhood, her family and her passion for art, along with her romantic disappointments and the story of the scar on her thigh. I needed a background for her partner, and I invented one. I described the relationship between them, and the peculiarities money — a lot of money — bring to anyone’s life. I described their transformation once children came along, and the feelings she experienced after his sudden death, when she finally understood that she had been truly in love with him all along, and when she was forced to humiliate herself in order to get her share of her inheritance. I went through multiple drafts, adding redeeming qualities to Miriam, stressing her growth and progression and hoping that in the end, her loss and her struggle would make her as endearing to others as she was to me.

Sure enough, not even ten minutes into our conversation at the book club, someone remarked that Miriam came across as self-centered, manipulative, and as a woman who didn’t hesitate to use her good looks and sexual prowess to advance through life.

This was not the first time I had heard the comment, and I fully expected it. After all, that unguardedly expressed desire of my real-life model to be taken care of by a wealthy man, so completely different from what the other women I knew at the time were seeking — independence and successful careers — was what had fascinated me, and what I had tried to capture in my book.

I brought up the concept of the antihero. ‘Miriam,’ I said, ‘is not a princess, but neither is she a wicked witch. Literature is a gallery of protagonists who deeply challenge our perceptions of good and evil, of acceptable and unacceptable societal norms. From Hamlet to Donald Draper (in Mad Men) the world of fiction abounds in antiheros. Why? Because such is life.’

‘Yes,’ my reader responded, ‘but that prevented me from getting fully engaged and rooting for the protagonist.’

I insisted. ‘Think of Madam Bovary,’ I said. ‘Or better yet, of Scarlett O’Hara. Why do we like Gone with the Wind? Scarlett is vain and spoiled and throughout the book she destroys the people in her life, yet, somehow, we understand her. It is perhaps the humanity and the struggle for survival that she represents. Miriam struggles to survive as well.’

The discussion moved on. Somebody remarked that Miriam was an antifeminist, and I agreed. When a woman friend talks to Miriam about the feminist movement, Miriam feels like ‘coming from a different world.’ She thinks that, ‘women were like [Georgia] O’Keefe’s flowers, and men had to treat them as such.’ In Miriam’s view, ‘A woman was delicate and fragrant and hidden by layer upon layer of petals. She needed to be tended to, nourished, moved away from the sun and the wind, dressed, undressed, caressed, spoken to, and told she was beautiful.’

We talked about the parallel between Miriam’s ambitions as a painter and Georgia O’Keefe. Despite her aspirations, in my perception Miriam was not a talented artist, hence one of the reasons for the title of the book.

Back on the subject of the antihero, I asked what an author should do to engage the reader when depicting a negative character. We agreed there was no simple answer and our pleasant evening ended on a promise to talk again.

I keep thinking about the comments I received and realize that if the reader does not identify with my main character, the book, no matter how well written, does not satisfy, nor sell. What made Gatsby likable? How about Holden Caulfield, in The Catcher in the Rye?

Recently I listened to the eulogies presented at the funerals of John McCain and George H.W. Bush. They were both dignified and emotional, and the speakers recognized the qualities of these huge political figures without omitting to mention that they had not been perfect men.

I thought about a novella I wrote, Smoke, in which the protagonist is a political refugee in Denmark, a wife and child beater, and who in the end kills a man. I had published the novella in Romania to great reviews and, at the time, a well-known Romanian director wanted to make a movie based on it, but he did not find financial backing. When I approached him with a new novel, Planet New York, based on my (very positive) immigration experience in the US, in which the protagonists are nice people and all ends well, he declined. ‘It’s too tame,’ he said. With its dark and menacing tone, the reaction of the American readers of Smoke was not encouraging. Tolerance towards a negative portrayal of characters who don’t see the light, who don’t redeem themselves and turn their lives around at the end of a book is cultural. Happy endings are part of the generic American psyche. Maybe.

I guess this is where the author’s magic intervenes. The Grinch who stole Christmas changed in the end — his heart grew a few sizes. In a realistic novel the heart of the protagonist changes but does not always grow. How a writer presents and describes the evolution of his or her characters to make them attractive while imperfect — in other words, human — is where the talent roams. It cannot be taught. It cannot be argued. And it requires hard, exhausting and patient work.

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