The danger of reading a novel primarily for the opportunity to "identify" with its characters--as well as to interpret their actions by judging them on moral grounds--seems well-illustrated in Catherynne M. Valente's review of Susann Cokal's Breath and Bones (Unbridled Books). Valente writes of the novel's protagonist:
Famke is a horrible woman, and despite the narrative's assurances that we must love her, the reader cannot identify with such a shallow, idiotic, and careless person. (The Mumpsimus)
Even if it were true that this character is "a horrible woman"--deliberately portrayed as such by the author--would this be a good reason to so dislike this novel as to call it "truly, shockingly bad"? (Vallente's focus is almost entirely on the moral failings of this character, although she does pause occasionally for an ad hominem comment on the author herself, as when she wonders "if she has had any practical experience with human bodies at all.") Surely we can all think of fiction we've read in which one or more of the main characters are morally dubious, if not just plain repulsive, but which we nevertheless judge to be compelling and aesthetically powerful books. (Journey to the End of the Night? Naked Lunch? Much of Flannery O'Connor?) Shouldn't it be a critical rule of thumb that in order to fairly assess a work of literature for what it seems to be offering us we make an effort to put aside moral judgment, especially judgment of fictional characters, until we have honestly determined the role these characters play in the work's aesthetic order and in the context of its broader thematic concerns?
However, it simply is not the case that the protagonist of Breath and Bones is the "shallow, idiotic, and careless person" this reviewer takes her to be. Famke Summerfugl (or Ursula Summerfield, or Dante Castle--her identity is as quickly changed as her location as she travels across the western United States) is determined to get what she wants (a reunion with the artist for whom she has served as a model back in her native Denmark), but her very single-mindedness is at least as much the product of an uncertain sense of self as it is a more willful character flaw. Indeed, it is her lack of a truly developed personality, her ability to become the object of others' obsessions, to take on whatever attributes are required to survive in an environment she is in some ways too inexperienced to know is hostile to her presence, that really define her as a character. Famke leaves a fair amount of distress and destruction in her wake, but little of it is due to her "careless" or "idiotic" behavior. If anything she cares too much (especially in comparison to many of the people she encounters, who have more or less acceded to their limited circumstances), as her quest is motivated by her belief in the artistic genius of Albert Castle and in her own role as his inspiration, and she is anything but an idiot. When finally she does reunite with Albert, she has been able to learn enough both about herself and human nature to recognize he's not nearly the man she had in her earlier romantic haze taken him to be.
It might be that Catherynne Valente reacted as she did to Famke because she failed to consider that Breath and Bones is essentially a picaresque novel, Famke its picaro. One doesn't normally approach a picaresque novel with an assumption that its protagonist will be a "rounded" character who will provoke either emotional attachment or moral revulsion. Since the root meaning of "picaro" is "rogue," if we were to demand of such a character that he/she be a model of propriety, we would be denying the picaresque form its motivating agency. It's the "adventures" of the picaro that solicit our attention in this kind of fiction, and whatever change or enhancement of character that emerges is secondary to the experiences to which the character is submitted, to the process by which change or growth might (or might not) occur.
Cokal has in this case herself enhanced our perception of the picaresque form by making her protagonist a woman. Famke is neither more nor less "horrible" (or desperate or confused) than most picaresque anti-heroes, but surely one of the problems Catherynne M. Valente has with her is that she's an anti-heroine, a woman taking on the role traditionally associated with misfits and outcasts, one that inherently calls for a certain amount of guile and disregard for moral niceties. One wonders if Valente would express the same contempt for a male character engaged in similarly venturesome conduct as Famke Summerfugl. Is a picaresque narrative acceptable for exploring the moral margins of male behavior, but inappropriate for depicting women who also find themselves caught in marginal circumstances? Are women, even in fiction, to be judged by different standards than men? If we find ourselves having moral qualms about a female character acting in ways that are conventional in a literary mode usually reserved for men, should we be rethinking our expectations of "female behavior" or our assumptions about those conventions? Perhaps these are questions Susann Cokal would like us to ask while reading her book.
(And I certainly don't think that Cokal's narrative insists that "we must love" Famke. It seems to me that Cokal has written the kind of novel she's written precisely to induce in us a degree of ambivalence about her main character. To engage in the kind of questioning of literary means and ends I've just outlined almost requires that we feel uneasy about our response to a character like Famke.)
At one point Valente calls Breath and Bones "a romance novel that thinks it's too good for the genre" and at another claims it falls into a certain kind of "realist trap," so it's hard to know whether she thinks it strays too far from reality or not far enough. However, it is certainly true that the kind of quest narrative the novel uses allows for a fair amount of exaggeration, coincidence, and melodrama (think of Tom Jones, of many of Dickens's novels, or, indeed, of Huckleberry Finn.) Breath and Bones incorporates its share of all of these, but never to the extent that we begin to disbelieve in its created illusion of an historical time and place. (In this regard, the historical epigraphs presented at the beginning of chapters are largely superfluous. The novel's success depends on the integrity of its own narrative logic, not on the broader historical picture it presents.) Thus, although B & B is not recognizably "postmodern," it also is not simply a "realist" novel retreating into the past. (And, again, the only reason I can see to call it a "romance novel" is that its protagonist is a woman who believes herself to be in love.)
Finally, Valente says of the style of Breath and Bones that "the language of the novel was so simplistic as to give Potter and Co. a run for their broomsticks." She must have in mind a passage such as this, as Albert Castle is working on his pre-Raphaelite portrait of Famke as Nimue:
. . .He had beautiful fingers, long and bony, with a rainbow of paint always under the nails, and to Famke's mind they produced wonders. They had drawn her as an earthly Valkyrie, in a cloak made of swans' feathers (and nothing else); painted her as a nearly naked Gunnlod, the loveliest of the primordial Norse giants, watching over the three kettles of wisdom in a deep, deep cave (Albert seemed to very fond of caves.) And now this Nimue, a wizard's lover, who could be from icy Scandanavia but would be of great interest to the English critics who could make Albert's fortune. Famke had never heard of Merlin or of Nimue, but Albert was teaching her a great deal about the mythology of her people. He liked to set her lessons from the traveler's guidebooks scattered over the mantel.
There is a certain ingenuousness to a passage like this (although the novel does not stick exclusively to Famke's implied point of view), but ultimately it works as much to expose the pretensions of Albert Castle ("Albert seemed very fond of caves") as the "simplicity" of Famke's perceptions. And this clash between Famke's innocence and the rather sordid actualities she encounters (both in America and in Denmark) ultimately provides the novel with what might be its most resonant conflict.
Catherynne M. Valente and I seem to have read different books. She read a story motivated by the actions of a morally compromised romantic heroine. I read a well-executed variation on an always-renewable form that if anything explicitly challenges a reflexively "moral" response to works of literature.