I won't render an absolute judgment on this book, because it'll appeal to different folks. If you're turned off by a protagonist who is such a turn-off, you'll hate this book. But if you don't need likable characters to enjoy a novel, this could work.McEwan’s latest seems to have stirred up the on-going question about “likable” protagonists, and indeed it seems that the lead character here is a real piece of work. Still, the practice of avoiding unpleasant characters altogether seems to us problematic and gets to a central conflict about why we read literature at all. Zimmerman recognizes these divergent interests in his bifurcated evaluation, but the Ape wonders about what it means to "need likable characters to enjoy a novel."
First, we might consider a working definition of “likability.” For the present purpose, it seems that in order for a character to be likable they must meet one or more of the following criteria:
- Be sympathetic-- we generally identify with them or their situation.
- Have noble or normative desires—they want things we either consider good or socially acceptable.
- Be charismatic---If the character doesn’t possess either #1 or #2, they must have a personality that is sufficiently interesting, entertaining, or otherwise engaging enough to countermand their largely unpalatable selves.
As harmless as these qualities may seem, requiring them of a protagonist quarantines vast swaths of potential characters. This seems to us what separates those who read primarily for “pleasure” from those who read for more abstract goals.
In How to Read and Why, Harold Bloom articulates one of the Ape’s central beliefs about the value of literature:
one of the major reasons why we do read and should read is because we cannot possibly know enough people or know them closely enough.Here, Bloom figures literature as an exploration of human possibility, with all the problems and potential of what that means. To close ourselves off from the “unlikable” privileges pleasure over experience and ensures, perhaps unbeknownst to ourselves, that we trod the safe terrain of the known.
Passing a happy hour is a signal satisfaction of reading, to be sure, but it is merely one of the satisfactions.