I wonder what literary historians will make of the fiction of our times?
Dark times often produce light stories. After World War I, for instance, British crime fiction took a cozy turn. In contrast, economic prosperity can bring us tales grimly pessimistic. The year 1949 produced the novel 1984. The year 2008 gave us The Hunger Games. The economy crashed that year, true, but the novel must have been written earlier when high-risk mortgages and credit default swaps were like candy.
Currently, our economy has been on a path of tepid, unequal recovery for ten years—nothing to brag about but not wholly bad either—so you might expect that such a time would produce a literature of mild discontent. Nope. Our era has produced more unabashedly dark fiction than probably any other era in literary history.
Why now? I’ll leave the question to academics to answer, but dark fiction generally involves an element both puzzling and important for writers to understand: dark protagonists. Nasty, menacing and murderous protagonists are wildly popular. Go figure. Is it exciting for readers to vicariously enjoy being amoral?
Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night (2006) is the story of Edward Glyver, a Victorian booklover, scholar and murderer. His first killing is of a randomly chosen stranger, a murder for which feels no remorse—but for which he has a reason:
Now I knew that I could do it; but it gave me no pleasure. The poor fellow had done me no harm. Luck had simply been against him—together with the colour of his hair, which, I now say, had been his fatal distinction. His way that night, inauspiciously coinciding with mine in Threadneedle-street, had made him the unwitting object of my irrevocable intention to kill someone; but had it not been him, it must have been someone else.
Until the very moment in which the blow had been struck, I had not known definitively that I was capable of such a terrible act, and it was absolutely necessary to put the matter beyond all doubt. For the dispatching of the red-haired man was in the nature of a trial, or experiment, to prove to myself that I could indeed take another human life, and escape the consequences. When I next raised my hand in anger, it must be with the same swift and sure determination; but this time it would be directed, not at a stranger, but at the man I call my enemy.
And I must not fail.
Let’s think about that confessional passage. Glyver claims no remorse, and yet he describes the murder as “a terrible act”. He has no pleasure in it, sounding almost indifferent, and yet he calls his victim “the poor fellow”. Do you get the feeling that Glyver’s sentiments and words are at odds with what he’s done? They are.
Thus, we can discern the most fundamental trick of putting over a really terrible person: The dark protagonist who purports to have no conscience actually has one. Furthermore a “bad” protagonist, if palatable, is necessarily and somehow and in some way, to some degree, good. [Read more…]