Books

Shaking the Foundations of the Novel in 'Lacking Character'

Curtis White gives a hilarious display of creative destruction.

Lacking Character
Curtis White

Melville House

Mar 2018

Other

The question of what makes us human has become highly relevant to scientists and philosophers in our age of robotics and artificial intelligence. But that same question has plagued novelists for generations, only they call it the struggle to craft "lifelike characters". To the religious or symbolically minded, all acts of creation mirror the original Creation and all novelists are somewhat playing God, even if most are polite enough not to point it out. Some novels, like Curtis White's Lacking Character, not only draw attention to this mildly blasphemous parallel, they make a burlesque farce of the whole thing, laying waste to the conventions of the novel and the conventions of human life in general.

While White's chaotic world defies summary, the action begins with a small Illinois town suddenly consumed by a horde of somewhat sentient Zorros, accompanying the main character (as it were) Percy, on his mission to deliver a message to the Marquis. Sent from the appropriately magical location of the Hebrides (which none of the characters can quite place on a map) by the Queen of Spells, Percy forgets his message and is not quite sure what to make of the somewhat descended state of the Marquis, who earns little respect and occupies his time playing Halo. Yet readers soon learn that Percy isn't quite sure what to make of anything, as he's less human than a golem fashioned by the Queen of Spells, who later admits, "Frankly, for any human purpose, he lacks character. He, like you, is more on the order of a cartoon, or a puppet, or luggage. But like many creations, Percy rebels against his mistress and sets out into a cruel and uncaring world more than ready to take advantage of whatever opportunities may arise.

Throughout, White supplies a running satire of American life, viewing the absurdities of the present through novelistic conventions from centuries past. He mixes the highfalutin language of lords and ladies with the cadences of screwball comedy and an American strip-mall landscape. On his travels, Percy is casually attacked on the road, he is forced to live with a pack of dogs and learn their language and myths, and finally becomes a kind of erotic masseur to the town. The haughty Queen is outraged and returns Percy to a happy, non-sentient state grazing on her estate, leading the author to track her down and demand his own answers.

Gradually, the author himself supplants Percy as the main "character", as the elements of the novel start behaving rebelliously and the author must make concessions to his readers.The author claims it is his intention for his characters to "lack character", that he prefers for them to live "not in the world, but midway in some interior distance, suspended between a mute God and the babble of the world." But he soon capitulates to his audience, which demand fictional worlds that "remind them of family, of real places, of, God forgive them, real people. I can hear them now, those weary voices that would simply like to say that the author should try to help out now and then. "In the face of open revolt, the author begins pandering, for instance responding to demands for more trees with long, purple passages of landscape description. The walls between the fictional and the metafictional collapse entirely (an earthquake in one scene may have been caused by the author hitting tennis balls against the outside his studio) as the author begins arguing with his own creations and indulging one hilarious interruption after another (like a stirringly romantic ode to a Borsolino hat).

("Duck Amuck" Looney Tunes)

It may seem like a slight but it's intended as high praise to note that Lacking Character's most apt reference point isn't a novel but a cartoon, "Duck Amuck", the wildest and most surreal Looney Tunes episode in which an exasperated Daffy is tormented by constant changes to setting and costumes until he revolts against his own animator's brush (later revealed to be wielded by Bugs Bunny). Like that seminal cartoon, Lacking Character keeps the same wisecracking tone even as it chews through setting after setting, style after style, device after device.

What's surprising is how thought-provoking this madcap energy can be, not just about novels but about our own struggles to show agency and character to the world. After Percy describes grappling with God, the author states "it's interesting to see that even puppets can have their little anagnorises. And, in the end, admit it, who isn't a puppet? Who isn't in a play? It's enough to give one hope."

8


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Prof. Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Music

Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.

Television

HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.

Music

Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.

Music

Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.

Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Film

'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Music

Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.

Music

DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.

Music

JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.

Music

​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.

Music

Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times

Music

Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.

Music

How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.

Books

Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.

Music

Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.