“Whether it’s good or bad, it is sometimes very pleasant, too, to smash things.”

Fair warning:  this post contains some discussion about the personality of the main character of Peripheral Involvement.  There’s nothing here that I would describe as a spoiler, plot-wise, but if you haven’t read the book, and if you’re the type of person that likes to read things with a totally clean slate, then maybe stop here (and go read the book)!  For everyone else, please continue…

The title of this post is a quote from one of my all-time favorite works, Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.  I’ve been thinking about it lately, since a reviewer remarked on the fact he didn’t find the main character in Peripheral Involvement to be very likeable.  I didn’t perceive his comments on Jack’s (lack of) likeability as a criticism, but it got me pondering the question of how much an author should care about readers liking his or her protagonist.

Dostoevsky didn’t seem to trouble himself much on that front.  The nameless narrator of Notes from Underground is about as far from amiable as one can get (in the first two sentences of the story, he descibes himself as “sick,” “spiteful” and “unattractve,” and he gets less sympathetic from there).  Underground Man is probably not the guy that you want to take on a road trip to Vegas, but for my money he’s one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever run across in literature.

Of course, writers of the stature and talent of Dostoevsky tend to be able to pull things off that might be difficult for writers like, say, me.  During the writing and editing process, I worried a fair bit about how my readers would react to Jack.  I always understood that he wasn’t going to come across as a particularly likeable guy.  You can fairly describe him as self-centered, arrogant, lazy, entitled and at least a little misogynistic.  He smokes constantly, drinks heavily and abuses an array of illegal drugs.  And those are just the shortcomings that come to mind off the top of my head.

A fair number of Peripheral Involvement’s 282 pages are spent inside Jack’s head.  I was afraid that if people found him truly reprehensible, they might have lost interest in his story.  On top of that, I was a little apprehensive about the fact that so many of Jack’s experiences were taken from my own life.  If people recognized chunks of me in the character, would they attribute all of those negative traits to me as well?  After all, my mother was going to read this thing…

I thought about trying to smooth some of Jack’s edges, and I played with a few additional scenes here and there that would have shown off some of his more redeeming characteristics.  In the end, I scrapped most of those edits.   I don’t regret it, because I think what’s left are the elements of Jack’s character that I wanted to explore, and that fit with the story.  But I am curious to see what you think.  Did you dislike Jack?  Does it depend on whether you know me personally?  I’d love to hear some thoughts on this!




One response to ““Whether it’s good or bad, it is sometimes very pleasant, too, to smash things.””

  1. If an author does his job well, the reader will have an opinion or feel about the main character. Whether or not the reader likes the character is an example of how well the author did in pulling the reader into the mind of the character.
    Jack Caufield is not my kind of guy for some of the reasons already stated. But, when I finished reading Peripheral Involvement, I knew who Jack was.