“Untouchable, disappointing, infinitely changeable.” A Playlist of Not-So-Main Characters ‹ Literary Center
A sinful reading admission: I like characters that aren’t well balanced and protagonists that have a difficult relationship with being main. It is a relief to meet them. Have you ever felt like a not so complete, unreal, insubstantial person compared to others? I’m not talking about insecurity or impostor syndrome so much as about the frayed, feverish experience of dissociation, the feeling that your past and present are not consistent with true personality.
Elena Ferrante’s term for this is frantumaille, a word from his mother’s dialect that inscribes the self as a jumble of fragments; to discover frantumaille is to be an “unstable landscape”, plagued by contradictory sensations that threaten to tear you apart. Ferrante writes that this inherited dissociative state is directly related to the ability to speak as oneself: that I had learned to control, from the first year of life until now, would begin to fluctuate on its own, dripping or hissing from a body becoming a thing, a leather bag letting out air and liquids.
Meet people with frantumaille in fiction does not guarantee pleasant reading. A warm, palpable sense of self does not escape the page to greet you, like a friend or a familiar scent. These characters can seem underdeveloped, cold, aloof, not fully fleshed out, unable to offer the reader a straightforward account of themselves. They could be described as unreliable, complex, neurotic, frustrating, unpleasant. They are often, but not exclusively, poor, neurodivergent, gay, women, people of color. They have often, but not necessarily, experienced trauma. Some might try to dissociate themselves from their own storylines. Their inconsistency is not the result of bad writing, but because they exist in a troubled relationship with what it means to feel real – to carefully piece together a mess of thoughts, feelings and experiences under the banner of an “I”, with all the assurance that implies.
Why read or even write characters like this? There’s good old identification, of course, and I’d like to think that complicates empathy’s overreliance on articulation. It’s easier to understand someone when they, like a “good” main character, take you through their past and connect the dots in the present. But not everyone can give a full account of themselves.
And sometimes the attempt to do so can lock the speaker into certain narrative positions that others expect of them; the “I” calcifies around its particularities or its experience of evil and excludes the possibility of existing otherwise. Not-so-main characters hold space for not having, or not being able to, divulge the worst things that have happened to you in order to deserve to take up space. During and after trying to write a narrator like this in my own novel, the following works of fiction, poetry, and theory have been indispensable to me. They provided a framework for designing a first person that always wiggles uncomfortably out of its pronoun, both more and less than the undisclosed sum of its parts.
Marie Ndiaye, Self-Portrait in Green
This novel not only seems to change every time I come back to it, but also to change form during the act of reading. A grown woman with young children, the narrator is both detached and keenly connected to her surroundings, even more so when she encounters one of the “women in green” who haunt her past, present and future. Women in green are a slippery, diffuse category – beautiful, glamorous, dangerous – which the narrator is both frightened and bewitched by.
At one point, her mother transforms into the archetypal woman in green: “untouchable, disappointing, infinitely mutable”, but the narrator finds these figures more substantial than herself, and it is only her observations that give a negative definition to his own interiority: “they decorate my thoughts, my invisible life.” As the narrator realizes that she needs the women in green to be coherent and find life bearable, she reveals her own spectrality as a means of coping with the loss.
Sarah Bernstein, The bad days ahead
There is something of a “woman in green” about Clara, a colleague who catches the eye of The bad days ahead anonymous narrator. Where Clara is enigmatic and confident, the narrator is indistinct, living on the fringes of her own life. Her concern for Clara creates a centripetal effect that confirms her own existence: “I felt that Clara realized the things I said, that my thoughts were admitted into the sensory universe. Like NDiaye, Bernstein brilliantly captures the tension between detachment and encounter, of a distorted attachment to the world.
We know little about the story of the narrator except through a drip of disturbing and rambling anecdotes. At one point, she receives an email from her father informing her of her mother’s suicide, quickly followed by an automated message stating that the sender’s email address does not exist. This kind of thwarted movement toward intimacy and connection is at the heart of The bad days ahead. One of the things I like most about this book is its examination of the gradations of detachment, both before and after the experience of violent acts.
Nuar Alsadir, fourth person singular
By writing the fragments that make up part of fourth person singular, Nuar Alsadir – also a practicing psychoanalyst – has found a method to capture the material that usually falls through the net of the conscious mind. She set an alarm for the early morning hours and wrote down everything that came through the pen in her hand as she woke from sleep. In this hypnogogic state, the “I” of the waking mind is still cloudy, blurred by the content of the dreams. The result is a constellation of gem-like statements that seem both elusive and a direct line to a seemingly personal, otherwise obscured truth: “Gotta tidy up, sentiment – fast!” I drop it in the little pocket, lock it up.
Also including essays that revolve around subjects of shame and the lyric “I”, fourth person singular delights in contradiction and multiplicity, in parts that do not form a whole. It reminds me that a literary “I” can “resist adopting fiction in a singular voice, have the intimate quality of a notebook without the intimate content, become the position or spokesperson through which the world, rather than an individual, speak”.
Denise Riley, The words of oneself: identification, solidarity, irony
The second chapter of words of self begins with an author’s admission: “I have long nurtured the suspicion of a certain guilt, associated both with the writing and with the acceptance of an identification, itself partly generated and fueled by the language functioning. This guilt is the “linguistic malaise” generated by the attempt to speak or write as oneself, which has as much (if not more) to do with the language as with the person speaking. And why wouldn’t it be, when the grammar on which we rely to reference ourselves “seems to require, even guarantee, an authenticity closely linked to originality”. It’s a productively sticky situation when the first person pronoun designated to say our own uniqueness is also everyone else’s. As Riley succinctly puts it: “Anyone else is as I and although calling me II don’t mind saying me, this one person, what I’m saying is all the same something quite universal.
Ingeborg Bachman, Malina
There was a time in 2020 when everyone on my social media feeds (including me) seemed to either be reading Malina or watch the 1991 film adaptation, scripted by Elfriede Jelinek and starring Isabelle Huppert as the anonymous narrator. I understand: it was confinement, and Malina largely consists of a woman unraveling in her apartment, referencing a mysterious virus that seems to encompass love, language, fascism and patriarchy. This virus is similar to what Hélène Cixous called wolf loveand maybe sitting next to Lauren Berlant cruel optimism—an attachment, sometimes fatal, to what harms you. Infected by this virus, the narrator lives with a man – Malina – and is in love with another – Ivan – who lives nearby.
What begins as an almost simple story of romantic obsession quickly implodes narratively and linguistically, when the narrator realizes that, as Rachel Kushner’s introduction puts it, “she operates in a field of signs, a reality whole sensory, which is masculine. Or, according to the photo I captured from the film (which, of course, was the one everyone else captured as well): “Language is punishment. All things are inside.
Simone Weill, gravity and grace
gravity and grace is a collection of diary entries by French Catholic mystic and political activist Simone Weil, compiled after her death. The book is duly heterogeneous, exploring topics such as evil, beauty, and algebra, and several chapters devoted to the self and its destruction—or what Weil calls “decreation.” Decreation consists of an avowal that “We possess nothing in the world […] except the power to say “I”…” and that our “I” is “…what we have to give to God, in other words, destroy. »
For Weil, the “I” is a coagulation of the past and the future, an arbitrary mask from which one must learn to detach in order to be filled with God. The writing is elliptical in tone, consistent with an internal logic that is not immediately graspable; Again gravity and grace is a book I usually come back to, less for theological instruction than for its detachment from the existence of the ego, complicating the ease with which a self can tell its own story: “I am also other than what I am. imagine being. ‘Cause I’m a bad reader, I can’t stop reading G&G next to the odd details of Weil’s biography; it is infinitely compelling to me that a person who seemed such a distinctive individual was so preoccupied with the metaphysical and political task of undoing himself.
Lisa Robertson, Baudelaire’s Fractal
I wanted to end this list with a first-person narrator who enjoys being non-identical to himself. Hazel Brown wakes up one morning in a hotel room to find that she is the author of the complete works of Charles Baudelaire. Baudelaire’s Fractal is a sickening ride of fun and insight through the self-detachment and self-fabrication of reading (and its comorbidity, writing), which “unfolds like a game called ‘I'”. pronoun “is not dislocation or dissociation, but a refreshing shimmer of sensuous clarity.” Hazel surrenders to this sensuality, filled with contempt and erotic sadness, and thus discovers the flirtation, the invention and the possibility inherent in an incoherent “I”.
Paul by Daisy Lafarge is available from Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.