Several years ago I read The Underpainter, a novel by Jane Urquhart. The protagonist, Austin Fraser, creates a series of paintings depicting the people who have touched his life, then erases the details by applying progressively lighter shades of paint. Over the course of the novel, the paintings become a metaphor for how an emotionally crippled man has avoided true connection. Urquhart herself said in a June 2001 interview with January Magazine that she ‘hadn’t expected [Austin] was going to do what he had at the end’ and was so furious with him that she nearly couldn’t publish the book.
I was furious with him, too. The Underpainter remains the only novel I’ve ever thrown across the room in disgust. It took a full day for me to cool off enough to retrieve it and keep reading. As awful as Austin was, I still wanted to love him. Even as I write this, his rejection stings.
Shortly after I finished The Underpainter, I inherited a box filled with drafts of a memoir written by Madonna Ahrens, the protagonist of my own novel-in-progress. The manuscripts served as a series of portraits of her husband, landscape painter Carl Ahrens. The top, most recent version, was identical to the one she had self-published in 1945. It featured a Brontesque hero—tall, dark, brooding, and a trifle too perfect.
Earlier drafts made allusions to Carl’s temper, always followed by an anecdote illustrating his extreme gentleness. Yes, he could be cantankerous and difficult, she admitted, but illness and pain were the cause. Only a kind, compassionate man would revive a stunned honeybee or engineer an artificial leg for his rooster. The takeaway message, in modern terms: cut the guy some slack.
Tucked inside the earliest draft, on a loose, handwritten sheet, I discovered a truth that left me seething, one Madonna had taken great pains to conceal.
He was afraid of my youth, my [singing] voice, even my appearance, and wanted to make sure of keeping me all for himself by shutting out every aspect of my life which he could not entirely dominate. It was quite understandable. He had changed the whole course of his life because he loved me…As he gave his love freely and without compromise, entirely to me, he not only wished, but demanded, the same in return. He must be first, before the children, before music, before anything at all, and not only first but second and third as well.
It was not a happy moment to discover that the hero of my WIP was (at times) a controlling ass-hat, especially since I share DNA with said ass-hat. I did not want to know about, much less ‘excuse’ this aspect of his personality. An easy solution would have been to tuck that sheet away and feign ignorance.
A few things made me choose a different path:
- If the regal woman with the steady gaze and defiant chin didn’t want the truth out there, she wouldn’t have left a paper trail. She was no victim.
- Pain exuded from every line on the painter’s face, yet he gazed upon Madonna with naked adoration. He was no tyrant.
- That they were both behaving in ways contrary to their natures intrigued me.
It was quite understandable, she had said.
Despicable behavior can be both wrong and understandable. Characters who infuriate can leave more of a lasting impression upon readers than ones who are simply likable. Think Nick and Amy in Gone Girl or Humbert Humbert in Lolita. I despised all of them, but I remember their stories years later. I don’t remember the name of the perfectly upstanding main character in the novel I read last week.
Why is that? [Read more…]