I love an unsympathetic protagonist--I AM an unsympathetic protagonist--but there's a world of difference between unsympathetic
and just fucking annoying
Last night I finished reading A Quiet Adjustment
by Benjamin Markovits, which is about Annabella, who marries Lord Byron with predictably disastrous results. The deliberately affected narration reminded me of Jane Austen, with all its qualifications and discretion and seemingly contradictory descriptions. I almost stopped reading because "I don't have time for this. Say what you mean and mean what you say!" But, like Austen's books, this one teaches you how to read itself; there comes a critical mass of accumulation, repetition, and nuance, and one's focus suddenly shifts, like with a Magic Eye picture, and finally you can read between the lines. (Though there are bits of dialogue that still mystify me.)
Annabella is insufferably calculating, vain, and superior. Yet Markovits makes it clear to me for the first time just how suffocating women's roles were at the time, that an intelligent woman like Annabella was forced into vertiginous interiority because she wasn't allowed to direct that power outwards. Instead she measured every word and gesture, kept a running mental tally of "moral" victories and defeats, and orchestrated her relations with the precision and foresight of a chess master. (The reader can see very well how Annabella's daughter, Ada, would become the first computer programmer.) And yet, for all my understanding, I still didn't like her. Unlike the Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons, Annabella takes no pleasure in her machinations, demonstrates no verve or style in her persecution of her wayward husband or sister-in-law. She is neither hero nor villain.
I endured Annabella's point of view because I'm fascinated by how a gnarled intellect like hers navigated the nightmare of her marriage, the potential disgrace of separation, the continued relationship with Byron's half-sister/mistress even after Byron left the continent. As a reader, I suppose mine became equivalent to the curious eyes Annabella felt watching her post-separation, and I felt the same cold reproof as she dealt them.
Whereas Annabella fell in that uncomfortable space between unsympathetic and just annoying, the protag of The Road (movie version) fell squarely into the annoying camp.
You've been warned!)
I remember, with the book, being frustrated by Cormac McCathy's rambling, faux-biblical style, but watching the movie, style didn't bother me as much as characterization. Beginning to end, I wanted to strangle the father. First, it wasn't clear to me whether the movie premise was stupid--some sort of nuclear apocalypse killed all the animals and plants but not all the humans?--or if it was just the father who was stupid, since he thought that was the case. Near movie's end, we see the father, despite being a doctor, was mistaken. There are, in fact, other signs of life, and his malevolent view of the universe is not supported by the facts.
(Neither is his notion of necessity; at one point he destroys the family's beloved piano--for firewood, we are given to understand--but how 'bout using all the houses in their ghost-town subdivision, dumbass?)
Another frustration, the father is constantly veering between "Must save son!" and "Can't save son, so must KILL son." I swear, no one threatened that boy with extinction more often than his sniveling father. The man had more endurance than will to live. The boy's hopeful optimism is validated at movie's end, but I don't see the point in dragging him (and us) along behind his sinking ship of a father for TWO HOURS just to "reveal" that humanity's not a total wash. Seems like a perversely Job-like trial.
And this reminds me of that other supposedly specfic-by-way-of-literary-luminary book-turned-movie, Never Let Me Go. "Stop wallowing in your misery and DO SOMETHING!" I want to scream. "Even if it's pointless or half-baked or more symbolic than useful, sweet ass-grabbing Jesus, DO SOMETHING!"