It’s a truism of fiction writing that it “likes trouble.” Trouble is what complication and rising action are all about. The writer sets the scene, and then things get complicated—never in a good way. The novel is, in Nicholas Moseley’s phrase, a form of “catastrophe practice.” The novel’s happy days are all blank pages. I’ve made my own contributions to this practice in both fiction and nonfiction: depression, alcoholism, TV anomie, science zealots, robots. Lots of bad stuff. But not in this one, not in Lacking Character.
Lacking Character is my Ode to Joy.
This joy has its own past. It emerges from a tradition of storytelling running from Francois Rabelais through Cervantes, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Lord Byron’s Don Juan, Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers, and beyond. These are, as Henry Fielding defined the novel, “comic epic poems in prose.” The joyful noise that these books make is laughter. As John Lennon used to mug, “It’s just the lads having a larf.” But it’s not any old laugh—it’s a laugh with bite. It’s a liberating laughter (just as Lennon’s was).
What it principally liberates us from is the idea that the world as it stands is in any way normal or necessary. This laughter shows the way out, toward different and happier ways of organizing our shared world. Theirs is an artful dispensationalism that opens not upon the inevitability of God’s plan but upon open possibility, “free frame of reference,” as the hippies liked to say. This art says, “You’re free, so live like it.”
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