Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Jerks.

Our Broke and Bookish blog hop for May 10 is: "Top Ten Jerks In Literature (all those jerky guys in books..those who truly WERE *!? ^?! and those who just acted like one but could be quite lovable)."
First, let me say that it'd be way too easy just to list all the villains in the novels I've read, so I'm going to differentiate the term "jerk" as a person with who's rude or mean to others OR who's unthinkingly self-absorbed & obtuse in a way that may even cause harm, but who's not truly evil.  They may be charming in some ways, or even well-intentioned sometimes, but ultimately it's their self-centeredness and disregard for others in favor of themselves that causes most readers to feel vexed, annoyed, or angry with them, even when they're charming.  Dudley Dursley is a jerk, so is Uncle Vernon.  Voldemort is not.  That sort of distinction.

AND I'm only going to mention books that are well worth reading (IMHO), in which jerks enrich the plot, themes, and general enjoyableness of the whole.  So consider these "good jerks" in that regard.

OH, and I'm not going to limit jerks to "guys", for obvious reasons.

So, OK, here's the parade of jerks worth reading about...

1 & 2, with a questionable 3. Harry's uncle and cousin are two decided jerks.  Choose any of the Potter books, read the first chapter (OK, except Deathly Hallows) and you'll see.  And here's the sketchy one: Is Kreacher a jerk?  Or is his behavior the result of repression and therefore excusable?


4 & 5.  And how about the traitorous Aunt Evelyn in Philip Roth's The Plot Against America?  And her collusionist husband, Rabbi Bengelsdorf too.  In Roth's alternate history of the late '30's through early '40's, the two jerks (at first separately, then as a married couple) collaborate with isolationist/Nazi sympathizer President Charles Lindberg (yes, he of the flying fame and the kidnapped baby), the former to feed her all-consuming, solipsistic lust for fame and status, the latter seemingly just for status and perhaps for power and potentially because he actually thinks his participation is the Jews' best hope for survival in the U.S. in this darkened fictive world.  For more on The Plot Against America (and hence the reason these two jerks are still on my mind), check back tomorrow for my review of the audio book (and the actual book - I 'read' them in tandem), masterfully performed by the incomparable Ron Silver.

6. And the judge in The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai.  In this novel, set in the mid-to-late 20th century in the Bengal region of India (bordering Tibet), one of our central characters, the judge, alternately bullies and ignores everyone around him, including not only servants and acquaintances but his granddaughter as well, causing a significant amount of the conflict.  He seems insufferable, despite our understanding the origins of his dysfunction, until we notice that he functions not only as a major character, but also, in some ways, as a symbol for India itself.  Then the puzzle of what his actions might imply starts to fascinate, deepening this stellar novel.

7 & 8.  Both Tom and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby.  Now I suspect this one will cause controversy for two reasons:  1. Some people will say that Daisy's just a helpless victim, torn between two men.  2.  Other people will say that these characters are so annoyingly jerky that it's not worth reading the novel.  With both of these points, I disagree.  Daisy has choices, and her stance does considerable damage.  The language and ideas in Gatsby make the purposeful jerkiness of some of the characters well worth getting over, and once one reads it with an understanding that the narrator, Nick, is himself a bit of a jerk and not to be trusted, the whole book opens up and becomes quite enjoyable indeed. 

And, because it's National Short Story Month, let's try one of my all-time favorite characters, who just happens to be a jerk:

9. Mrs. Dutta from "Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter" by Chitra Divakaruni in Best American Short Stories 1999.  Our recently widowed title character's moved from India to the San Francisco Bay Area to live with her son, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren.  As she recounts her life to her best friend back home, she critiques just about every element of American culture she encounters and criticizes her daughter-in-law mercilessly while spoiling her son and grandchildren.  Mean-spirited, myopic, and conniving, Mrs. Dutta may indeed be a jerk, but the stunning beauty of this story is that by the end we are so moved on her behalf that we will never forget her.  Find out why by reading it:  It's one of my all-time favorite short stories.  I use it alongside Tim O'Brien's "Speaking of Courage" because both utilize the compacted framework of a single dawn-to-dusk narrative to such jaw-dropping psychological advantage.

10. And also, there's Jackson Peters in "Jubilation" from Tooth and Claw by T.C. Boyle. Boyle's trenchant, quick-paced, often darkly hilarious stories often feature somewhat-likable jerks as protagonists - and he usually manages to make us both cringe and empathize with them, bringing us up short a tad when we note that we share quite a few characteristics with these self-absorbed misfits and fools.  In this case, picture a Disney-esque "Celebration"-like Florida town in which everything that can go wrong gradually does go wrong, with the blinkered protagonist doggedly going along for the ride...

Musing on my selections here, one thing comes clear: Thinking about jerks is quite enjoyable, and we've plenty of them to choose from in literature.  Apparently, they're as ubiquitous in modern stories as happily-ever-after endings are scarce.

MFB,
L

Bonus Jerk: William Henry Devereaux, Jr. in Straight Man by Richard Russo.  He's an anti-hero for certain, and Russo plays Devereaux's misguided antics for dark comedy here, much as this author does in other works.  Devereaux, an aging English professor caught in - and contributing to - a wildly dysfunctional department, sends his personal life into a tizzy as well through a series of misguided decisions.  Even though many would characterize him as a jerk, most will do so smiling.

Bonus Questions:  Why do jerks so often come in pairs?

10 comments:

Red said...

First up, thank you for making the distinction as to what really is a jerk. I've also gotten stuck on your first section about whether or not Kreacher is a jerk. I'm sure his repression didn't help his character and Sirius's treatment of him was pretty awful. On the other hand, at times I felt like I wanted to jump into the book and throw him against a wall and he was certainly a death eater sympathizer. And now I feel like I've spent way too much time thinking about house-elves...

Lisa said...

Good choice on Harry's uncle and cousin. I totally forgot about them!

Birdie said...

I agree with your choices--the ones I've read that is. And I also appreciate the fact that you've defined how you are seeing the term 'jerk'.

Priya said...

No, you're right - Kreacher is a jerk! (...or I am being a bit biased). But with house elves like Dobby around, I just can't be sympathetic towards Kreacher! Wasn't Dobby kind of suppressed by the Malfoys too?
I always thought Dudley was more stupid than anything else! Uncle Vernon, on the other hand, is a classic jerk!
Nice list!
Here's mine:
http://peskypiksipesternomi.blogspot.com/2011/05/top-ten-tuesday-is-original.html

llevinso said...

Hooray for your shout out to Short Story Month!

Also I like your distinction between jerks and truly evil characters. I think I’ll do the same…

Brenna said...

I had Draco from Harry Potter but I didn't think of his uncle and cousin as well. Good call.

Laurie said...

So many jerks in Harry Potter... But jerks drive conflict (oftentimes), so with so much story, a few were bound to crop up.
And sorry, Kreacher: Looks like we don't forgive you...

La Coccinelle said...

Darn it... I forgot about the Dursleys! Oh, well...

LBC said...

I don't know most of your jerks, except the Buchanans and I wouldn't invite them to a dinner party.

Read my list here.

gautami tripathy said...

These are TOTAL jerks!

Here is my Top Ten post!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...