"I cannot live without books." -- Thomas Jefferson

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Sympathy for the Devil

I just finished reading a book and was more than a little creeped out by what I previously would have believed to be misplaced compassion. That's one hallmark of a good writer, building a bridge between the reader and the character. Despite how despicable that person may be. So here's my list of a few books that have inspired me to be at one with some "bad" people.

Columbine by Dave Cullen
The Columbine shootings were horrifically appalling and unforgivable, that should go without saying. This book impartially reports the events leading up to the massacre, as well as the fall out. The two perpetrators, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, come off more differently than I initially would have expected, the first, psychopath, the latter, an unbelievably depressed kid. My final impression was to wonder what could have been, and to lift some of my own judgment from the parents, who I previously would have held to blame.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The other week I declared that I could boil the essence of War and Peace down into four sentences. While I haven't gotten around to doing that, I will sum up another tome of Russian literature into half that amount:

A bright kid decides to kill someone to prove to himself that he is indeed a superior being by committing the perfect murder, which only proves he, surprise!, is not actually that clever. Then he starts to feel bad about what he's done, kind of.

The several hundred page version is way more fun to read than my summation. And a little, you know, deeper.

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut
When forced to pick a favorite novel, this is my default choice. I don't believe in favorites, but this is Vonnegut at his best: smart, funny, sad, and concise all at once. No sentences that go on for days. The main character, Howard W. Campbell, Jr. is a Nazi. Maybe. In any case, he's going to be hanged as one. But wait, he was an American spy. Who did he help more, the Germans or the Americans? Where did his loyalty lay? Love, identity, nationality, racism, truth, anything that means anything, it's all in here. Now that I think about it, it might just really be my favorite novel after all.

Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy
Culla impregnates his sister (forcibly?), won't let her leave the house, and then kills their baby. He's pretty hate-able until some horsemen start hunting him. And then for whatever reason, I kind of didn't want him to die an agonizing death.

Paradise Lost by John Milton
And here it comes, sympathy for the devil. The beginning is so good, you kind of wish the last two-thirds-ish were rewritten with Lucifer finally sticking it to that jerk, God (please don't send me religious hate mail). In all seriousness, Satan is way more fleshed out, interesting, and human than Adam and Eve who read like God's dull, little muppets.

A good bad character can really haunt you. They seem so much like us, and we can even see their sins as necessity in their situation. We've all had our share of transgressions, and that ability for evils, no matter how small, can burden us with lasting guilt. Even after confessions, apologies, or forgiveness, the guilt doesn't go away because we wonder what worse we might do, if we felt we had to.


Caroline said...

Such a great post! I love Adam and Eve as God's dull little muppets. That is a phrase that should live on in the literary lexicon.

I also quite enjoyed your summary of Crime and Punishment, and I have read the longer version. I think each of them has a place.

Tosh said...

Excellent post!