Emotionally misshapen losers are taking over contemporary literature!
Just kidding. Those guys have been running the show for centuries. But it does seem like every other literary novel that comes out these days has at its center some variation on the classic antihero—a character whose flaws are worn plainly if not proudly, and who inspires in readers scorn and affection in equal amounts.
One strain in particular—characterized by a self-loathing impulse to confession, a kinetic demeanor and a claim to authenticity expressed through vitriolic social critique—has emerged as a dominant model. The patron saints of this mini-genre: Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and pretty much every character Chuck Palahniuk has ever written. Readers can’t get enough of them, and writers—particularly young men—can’t seem to resist the temptation to put them in their books.
Gerry Howard, the editor at Knopf Doubleday, acquired the mega-best-selling 1996 novel Fight Club—a move that has put him in line to receive more Palahniukian writing for consideration than just about any other editor. Writers often miss the mark with their work for one of two reasons, though, according to Mr. Howard: either it is informed by too broad a view of what it means for prose to be “edgy,” or it is based on the mistaken belief that the essence of Mr. Palahniuk’s work is contained in the easily imitable aspects of his use of the grotesque.
So when agent Stephen Barbara came to Mr. Howard earlier this month with a manuscript written by 26-year-old Sam Munson, a friend Mr. Barbara had met during his days at the University of Chicago, the editor had reason to be skeptical; according to Mr. Barbara’s pitch letter, Mr. Munson could be “positioned” in the manner of Ned Vizzini (whose last book is about a suicidal adolescent’s experience in a mental hospital), Gary Shteyngart (whose most recent novel was narrated by an unpleasant, obese depressive) and, yes, Chuck Palahniuk, whose newest novel, Pygmy, due out in May, tells the story of a clandestine terrorist who despises the United States and is sent there in the guise of an exchange student to plot a massive attack.
And although Mr. Howard doesn’t see Mr. Munson’s book, titled The November Criminals, “as particularly Palahnukian,” it hooked him enough to enter a bid; Mr. Howard bought it last week at auction for a sum close to $100,000. The novel takes the form of an aggressively confessional letter written by a high-school senior in response to an essay question on the University of Chicago admissions application that asks him to discuss his best and worst qualities. Over the course of the book, Mr. Munson’s protagonist—named Addison—tries to illustrate at length the thesis that he actually has no “best” qualities—that he is irredeemable, pathetic and useless in every way, and excusable only as the product of a corrupt and shallow world. His misanthropy is expressed through various obsessions and enthusiasms, such as a penchant for Holocaust jokes, which Addison “collects” and deploys in order to offend people.
Mr. Howard said he does not get irritated when he sees young authors compared to Mr. Palahniuk, and thinks it’s natural that young writers would be attracted to drawing these kinds of characters. “There is so much pressure, I think, for young people to be adjusted and to get with the program these days that the fact that somebody like Chuck is out there saying ‘uh-uh’ is being taken as liberating,” he explained. “And obviously, if that sort of feeling is in the air, a lot of other talented young writers are going to channel it themselves.”
He went on: “There’s a huge amount of literature that suggests that the impulse to create art emerges from alienation, right? I don’t think people who have the impulse to engage in creative writing are doing so in order to, you know, affirm consensus reality. I think they’re looking to critique it. And there’s a model there in Chuck, ready to go.”
Joshua Ferris, the author of Then We Came to the End, a celebrated novel about office life that was chock-full of unpleasant and depressed individuals, said in an email that the modern antihero worked much the same as his ancestors, and that, formally speaking, the device is a natural thing to embrace if what you’re going for is social criticism.
“Dostoyevsky was interested in the new social and philosophical ideas of his time,” Mr. Ferris said. “The Catcher in the Rye, for all its enduring felicities and originality, grinds Salinger’s ax against phonies. And Chuck Palahniuk in, say, Fight Club, catches the zeitgest against IKEA conformity and the J Crewification of the nineties. This is best done with an anti-hero because an anti-hero is a hero in wolf’s clothing, saying and doing what no one else dares. They work a dark magic, dosing all the nitwits and dullards too stupid or afraid to say what must be said with a local, timely truth serum.”
Some of these characters are not far from monsters—not good underneath all their flaws but worth paying attention to because of them. Disfigured, pathetic, unapologetic and occasionally hopeless, they are, on the whole, contemptuous of the world around them because of what it’s turned them into and confident that the reason for their alienation is the inescapable, toxic nastiness of modern life. They are losers—spiritually dysfunctional, often ugly physically—with chips on their shoulders and resentment in their hearts that takes the form of a self-consciously unforgiving, bombastic mode of social criticism.
Other contemporary writers who’ve embraced something like this approach in their work include Sam Lipsyte, whose most recent novel, the brilliant and finally life-affirming Home Land, features a sharp-tongued misanthrope named Teabag who submits sad, usually abusive letters to his high-school alumni newsletter; John Niven, whose recently published Kill Your Friends is narrated by an unscrupulous, misogynistic talent scout who sees rot in everyone and everything; Mark Sarvas, whose Harry, Revised is about a deadbeat in the throes of midlife crisis; and Alan Moore, whose massively popular graphic novel Watchmen has at its center a hard-right vigilante named Rorschach, who makes a life of hunting the cretins he believes to be responsible for the moral decrepitude he sees all around him.
Over the past decade or so, characters like these seem to have become the vehicle of choice for young male writers seeking to express a certain sort of disaffection. More than that, as Mr. Palanhiuk’s blockbuster success has demonstrated, they’ve become alarmingly lucrative cash cows—resonant with millions of readers and inspirational to scores of budding authors.
But why, exactly?
“Hard fought bitterness or acidity feels like it gives you a framework for a kind of angry comedy that is, if not necessarily cathartic, at least accommodating enough to encompass an entertaingly hostile, plausible inner life,” said literary agent Jim Rutman, who represents among others Beautiful Children author Charles Bock. “Everything that is potentially bothersome can be fit into that mold. It’s fun to write angry. And you can sort of take cover behind this deeply bothered persona you’ve invented and you can go anywhere with it. You grant yourself permission and access. I guess it’s a species of irreverence.”
Readers, in Mr. Rutman’s view, respond to such characters because “if you are self-loathing enough, then you have access to difficult truths that other people would be loath to put forth. If you are invested in the fact that you are not even a candidate for any meaningful connection with anyone, then you let loose with all the painful honesty at your disposal.”
Daniel Menaker, formerly the editor in chief of Random House and the fiction editor at The New Yorker before that, said the modern antihero—specifically as he appears in the work of young men—has his roots in women’s liberation and the ambiguity of gender roles.
“I think maybe what’s developing here is there are two kinds of young, alienated heroes,” said Mr. Menaker, who has edited books by both Gary Shteyngart and Benjamin Kunkel. “One is the nerd: the somewhat indulged, un-grown-up guy who has sort of philosophical ideas or objections to society and doesn’t know what to do with himself. The other branch of people are ones who are not fully socially or politically integrated—they’re the tough guys.”
Both variations, Mr. Menaker said, can be seen as a “sociological outgrowth of some gender-role ambiguity introduced beginning in the ’60s or ’70s, when the way a young guy ought to be became less clear.”
Mr. Munson, for his part, who said he has read only one book by Mr. Palahniuk, chalks it up to the inevitable disillusionment of idealistic people.
“I just think it’s because of something enduring in the way our society is set up that makes it kind of eternally relevant,” Mr. Munson said. “I think, basically, we’re still living with the same kind of moral and political systems that saw the birth of the Underground Man and Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. There are superficial differences, in the sense that now it’s much more permissible to be frank about violence and sex than it was even 50 years ago, but especially in America, where we kind of drink in these ideas about freedom and equality from a very young age, you have to be very, very unperceptive not to see the disjunction between what we aspire to and what we achieve, and I think for some people that’s a very tragic, embittering thing.”