Just a little while ago, I published an article on villains, about how badly written villains are plot twists and not characters, and well-written ones have humanity and motivations, even if they are loathesome.I have just come across a really great example of the kind of precisely worked, humanly rendered, utterly obnoxious fictional jerk I so admire–too bad I hadn’t read this book when I was writing the article.
The protagonist of Russell Smith’s Girl Crazy is 32-year-old Justin Harrison. He teaches Business English and Online Writing at a suburban vocation school, while taking an interest in neither the material nor his students nor his colleagues, hating his boss, ogling the departmental secretary, and doing as little work as possible. He spends his evenings playing violent video games and having tepid conversations with his ex-girlfriend, whom he seems never to have liked. He has few friends, though he stretches the count by including school acquaintances from 10 years ago who occasionally send him mass-mail invitations to parties. And when he sees a girl crying by the side of the road, his first thoughts are of sleeping with her.
In short, Justin is an utter asshole, who spends the entire book feeling entitled to a lifestyle that he has made no effort to achieve, and being snarky to those he believes aren’t on-side with his pathetic cause, which is pretty much everyone. Luckily, those Justin hurts are pretty much as awful as he is, and for most of the book he is too deluded and inefficient to do terribly much damage to anyone. What’s terrifying at the end is that maybe he’s gotten it together, efficiency-wise without gaining any actual insight–maybe the damage is coming.
And what’s amazing is that Girl Crazy is really engaging–I genuinely wanted to know what would happen to Justin at every turn, and was fascinated by the inner workings of his mind. I am very much aware that there are folks in the world–in my world–very similar to this guy. His self-interest and self-regard are utterly resonant with lesser jerks I have known. I liked the book because of Smith’s sharp prose, his funny/mean jokes, the narrative drive, but also because I’d always wanted to know what guys like this are thinking. And now, a little, I feel I do.
Justin feels it’s ok to stare at attractive women as long and obviously as he likes because they’ll never consent to sleep with him, so he deserves to take what he can get, as much of it as possible, whenever he can. Justin is dying to teach literature to his students, though they are training in trades and don’t want to learn it, and the department doesn’t want to offer it. When someone finally asks, “What do you care…about how much English lit our students know about?” Justin thought about this. It was not such an easy question. “I don’t,” he said finally. “I would just find it more interesting.”
I recognize this sort of self-absorbed pathos though I can’t hang out with guys like Justin because my breasts are too small to merit interest and I’d probably try to kill him with a butter knife after twenty minutes, anyway. But it’s great to read Smith’s dead-on evocation of a loser with a theory about everything, and watch how he tries to project himself into the big leagues and the life of a sexy girl.
I am sure no one cares what I think is wrong with fiction today, but for what it’s worth, I think a lot of writers go wrong conflating “protagonist” and “hero.” Of course, there is much great literature to be written about people who overcome adversity, learn from their mistakes, reach out to their loved ones, help the unfortunate, and achieve greatness without ever comprimising their values–but do all books have to be about them? I suppose we are the heroes of our own lives, but by any other standard I’d see Justin Harrison as a villain. Reading Girl Crazy let me live his life with interest for a week. I even queasily identified with him in places, and that, I think, is a great literary accomplishment for Smith–and certainly a tougher challenge than getting a reader to feel a commonality with the heroes we all feel ourselves to be.