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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Book Review Trio:

          Today's post touches upon the subject of insecurity since today's post is my contribution to Alex J. Cavanaugh's Insecure Writer's Support Group.  All of us have our moments of insecurity because life itself is never totally predictable and none of us knows what the future holds for us.  We have good reasons to be insecure every once in a while at least.

          With that thought in mind, it makes sense that fictional characters often struggle with self-doubt and some level of apprehension about the world around them and the future they face.  Conflict often is related to feelings of insecurity.  An insecure character can be interesting to follow as we watch them deal with life's turmoil and hopefully experience growth as a result of coming through that turmoil.   My three most recent reads provide good examples of insecure main characters.

         J.D. Salinger's The Catcher In The Rye had been hiding amongst my books for quite some time before I finally found it.  This highly lauded book had been on my list of must reads for the past forty-some years.  When my lost paperback copy reappeared I decided that I must read it before it disappeared again.

          The story's main character Holden Caulfield seems about as insecure as one can get.  He's an adolescent dealing with the same struggles that boys his age have probably always dealt with and in that respect this book retains its relevance.  The novel follows Holden's wayward adventures over a week-end after he has been kicked out of school.

          My opinion is that this book is highly over-rated.  Perhaps it was a bit radical for its time and came to portend some of the changes that occurred in the three decades following its release, but now the book seems rather quaint, almost like a black and white film from the fifties.  Holden Caulfield may represent a certain element of dissatisfied, aimless over-privileged youth who might be interesting to look at but not to emulate.  This guy is no hero and not particularly admirable.  Sure, we see glimpses of goodness, but he's got a bad attitude for the most part.  This may be a result of his upbringing and the surroundings in which he lives, but still I found it difficult to root for this guy.

         The book is a decent read and thankfully short.  I can see why controversy has been generated by Catcher, but by today's standards of what young people are exposed to in modern entertainments this book is pretty mild stuff.  As a study in the insecurity of adolescence and the transition into young adulthood, Salinger has done a pretty good job.  I tend to think that this was the author's intent.  However, many readers have apparently likened Caulfield to their own lives and have sadly set him up as a sort of role model.

           The insecurity brought on by an oppressive society and an uncertain future is the theme of Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel A Handmaid's Tale.  The main character of Atwood's cautionary tale lives in a world where trust in others and confidence in any hope for the future is a thing of the past.  What we learn about the young woman who is the focus of the story suggests that she was probably dealing with insecurity throughout her life which perhaps makes it easier for her to accept the gloomy circumstance in which she finds herself when we meet her.  There is very little in her life to offer a promise of hope or happiness.  Her daily existence is a rote pattern of mere survival.

          Atwood effectively creates a believable world of dysfunction and paranoia, but an agenda comes across in her story-telling.  The author has an obvious distaste for religion and traditional conservative values which for me detracted from my enjoyment of this novel.  Though the nature of the story calls for a feeling of detachment, the approach caused me to care little about any of the characters and the reading experience became more of an analytical exercise.

          The Handmaid's Tale is proficiently written and the story is interesting, but it still felt somewhat ponderous to read.  My biggest objection to the book is the tacked on ending.  Using the gimmick of purporting the story to be a found record by scholars in the future, the speech at the end came across as rather silly to me and diminished the power of the real story presented in the novel.  The book would have worked better for me without the added ending.

           I recently won a copy of L .J. Sellers' The Arranger and read it during my recent trip to Tennessee.  This is dystopian novel which I found to be more believable than Atwood's tale.  Sellers creates a world twelve years in the future that is familiar, yet logically has diverged into a society plagued with homelessness and lack of jobs.   As I read this I couldn't help but accept that the author had come to some astute conclusions of where we might be heading.

           The characters in this novel display insecurities that are in part a result of the societal decay which looms over them, as well as their own personal flaws and concerns.  Ex-cop Lara Evans has doubts about her age, physical stature, and past mistakes as she participates in a national endurance competition called The Gauntlet.  Paul Madsen is a dull government worker whose insecurity about his appearance and status causes him to turn to devious illegalities in hopes of eventually winning over the woman of his dreams.

          The paths of these two characters weave their ways to a denouement that, though somewhat contrived, is satisfying and entertaining.  The characters are well-drawn albeit somewhat stereotypical, but it worked for me in the capacity of this novel.  The Arranger is pure entertainment, fun and riveting, and left me feeling psyched like a good action film.

          Since writers often channel themselves into their characters, it makes sense that insecurity would show up in those characters.   If a work of fiction is going to come across as realistic then insecurity must be an essential part of the formula.   After all, a perfect and totally secure character would probably be pretty boring in the end and rather annoying as well.

           Do you have any favorite insecure characters?   How do you think an insecure character might reflect the insecurity of that character's creator?



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30 comments:

mooderino said...

I read Catcher when I was 15 and it had quite an effect on me. I think it is dated as a piece of litereature but srull quite effective as a book that helps boys deal with their teenage alienaition. Or something.

I think you're right about insecurity, in whatever form (soemtiems over-compensating confidence even) is a key part of a character's build up.

Very interesting post.

mood
Moody Writing
@mooderino
The Funnily Enough

Kelly Robinson said...

I don't think the dated aspect of 'Catcher' is affecting your reading of it now so much as your perspective. You don't identify with Caulfield anymore --and you're not supposed to. Keep in mind that thousands of young people are still discovering and loving this book every year. You've grown up!

As to insecure characters: the ultimate, to me, is Prufrock in T.S. Eliot's 'Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock.' A poem, sure, but the fact that Prufrock is insecure, regretful, etc. and OLD makes it particularly poignant. 'Do I dare disturb the universe?' Prufrock could well be Caulfield in his eighties.

NaNo awaits.

Brianna said...

Great post for the IWSG!

I've never considered whether my MC is insecure or not, but I do believe my own insecurities are channeled into her.

SBJones said...

I have a character in my second book who is very insecure. Funny thing is, this character wasn't supposed to even be in the book. She was supposed to die in book one, but I had to bring her back to fix a logic hole.

I've been told that she steals the show in each scene that she is in. I don't see myself in this character, but I'm wondering if it's more because she knows she should be dead.

Stephen Tremp said...

Thanks for the review of The Arranger. I think I'll buy the Kindle version now.

My antagonist is very insecure, although he does a great job of putting up a front that he's confident (check out my Character Log blog from Monday).

I need to send you an email offline too.

Beverly Diehl said...

Interesting picks here. Read Catcher in the Rye many years ago, but it didn't hook me, possibly because I was not and never have been, a teenage boy.

Handmaid's Tale, on the other hand, did touch a very strong nerve, probably because I'm female and for all of my life outsiders have been battling to regulate what I do with my uterus. So the idea of a religious state where this is one of their main priorities is both chilling and all too realistic, IMO. I also thought the sensual detail Attwood writes is amazing - the odors in the gym, the colors the MC experiences.

The Arranger, on the other hand, I haven't read, so now am adding to my TBR list, (damn you! thing's growing faster than kudzu in the South) as it sounds intriguing.

Looking forward to seeing you at BlogWorld on Saturday. :-)

Arlee Bird said...

Mood-- Your point about insecurity overcompensating confidence is a good one.

Kelly -- You make a good point about the reader's age. Still I don't think Caulfield is all that great and I'm not sure that I would have appreciated the story when I was younger. But I see what you are saying. Alfred J. Prufrock is a great example of insecurity. I'm off to a slow NaNo start and it may get slower over the next few busy days.

Brianna -- Maybe it would be a good idea to focus on some of your MCs insecurities and use them to add tension and conflict to your story.

SB -- Evading death could definitely give a person some insecure feelings.

Stephen -- I thought you achieved a good sense of balance with all of the Breakthrough characters. Hope you enjoy The Arranger.

Beverly -- I think you raise a good issue about who is more inclined to be attracted to what types of books. Certain types of stories will go over better with certain audiences and that is probably what influenced me so much in how I perceived these three books. See you at BlogWorld.

Lee

Nicki Elson said...

Glad you made it back safely from your trip. I hope you weren't reading WHILE driving. ;)

I think one reason Harry Potter became such a sensation was because of his insecurities. We could all relate to Harry on some level.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I AM an insecure character!
I've never read any of those books, although I've seen the movie version of The Handmaid's Tale.
Since we all have insecurities, characters must have them or no one will relate.

cleemckenzie said...

Haven't read the Arranger, but I have read the other two books.

Granted Catcher is dated now, but you have give Salinger credit for opening the crack into modern YA. Besides, old Holden will always have a certain universal charm.

As to Atwood, I'm totally in her grip, so anything she writes I inhale. I toss off my critic's hat, so if she flubs, I don't notice.

Carol Kilgore said...

You read much deeper stuff than I do :)

I just read INVISIBLE, a YA by Jeanne Bannon. Lola starts out as so insecure she wishes she were invisible....

L.J. Sellers said...

Thanks for including my novel in your post. It's an honor to be in same company as the other authors.

Interesting question at the end! I've never thought of myself as emotionally insecure, but I definitely have insecurities about the future...both personally and nationally. Writing The Arranger was cathartic.

It is natural for characters to have insecurities, but as an author, I have to find a balance. I want my protagonists to overcome their fears and be strong in the long run.

Arlee Bird said...

Nicki -- Though I haven't read any of the Potter stories, I feel confident that he is a better role model for the young than Holden Caulfield.

Alex -- I think you're right. We want to have characters that we can identify with and nobody's perfect.

C.Lee -- I agree that Atwood is a masterful writer, but the tacked on ending really kind of bugged me.

Carol -- I don't know how much it has to do with insecurity, but I'd like to be invisible too.

LJ -- You did a great job of creating a plausible future. Insecurity comes in many forms and about many aspects of our lives and I thought you created realistic characters who dealt with their insecurities in their own ways. Overcoming insecurities and fears is one of the main things that exhibit a character's growth and make us root for that character. Thank you for writing such an enjoyable book.

Lee

Lynda R Young said...

I had to chuckle at your comments on Catcher in the Rye. I totally agree about it being over-rated (much like a lot of the classics).

I can't think of any favourite insecure characters. What I like best is their growth beyond their insecurities.

welcome to my world of poetry said...

Most interesting Lee, I am very insecure when writing as mainly I write about life's experiences and though I have travelled alot and hopefully next year come to the US, I hope people don't think me boring.

Yvonne.

Liz said...

I've only read bits of Catcher in the Rye, and there's a reason I haven't read more. I guess I'm too old.

I don't know if I have an favorite insecure characters. I'm insecure enough on my own. And I think I infect my characters with that insecurity.

Haunting you from Theresa's blog.

becca said...

thanks for the reviews

Suze said...

I read 'The Catcher in the Rye' when I was sixteen and felt very identified with Holden. I was also a very romantic girl and took the identification to another level, falling quite in love.

After that, I read the book every year for about four years. So. It's been quite a long time since I've read it. This post makes me wonder if I should pick it up, again, because I am curious to see what 37-year-old Suze would think as opposed to 17-year-old Suze.

I doubt I would ever see the book the way you have, Lee, reading it for the first time at this stage of your life. I remember laughing a lot-- the scene where he trips all over peanuts on the stairs and almost breaks his 'crazy goddam neck' just really did it for me. I think what I fell in love with most of all was his voice. I could listen to him talk about just about anything and like it. I liked that he felt sad about the discrepancy in luggage and that he noticed the way people acted as a result of such superficial things. I guess I tend to fall quite hard for 'observers' and this book was one, long observation-- however disenfranchised and embittered.

I'm definitely going to read it, again. I still regard this novel as perhaps my favorite of all time so I need to investigate whether or not this is still true.

Suze said...

And I like that he called Jane muckle-mouthed.

I am really enjoying reminiscing about this book. Am definitely going to pick it up again, very soon.

Arlee Bird said...

Lynda -- I find that often when a work has a big build up I am often let down when I experience it. Maybe it would be better if I didn't know anything about what I'm going to read, see, or what have you so I can formulate my own opinion without influence.

Yvonne -- You boring? Never!

Liz -- I do think that age has a lot to do with the Catcher experience and how we react to it.

becca-- Thanks for stopping by.

Suze -- I might have had a vastly different reaction to Catcher if I'd read it in my teens, but I don't think so. In many ways I've haven't changed much since then and what I read back then was similar to what I enjoy now. I too really liked the voice of the novel; it was the attitude that bugged me the most. I couldn't identify with the character, but I didn't have his upbringing either and I felt he was kind of a spoiled ungrateful kid. I liked the book, but I was not as great as I was expecting.

Lee

Misha said...

I've not read any of these books, but I would like to in the near future.

As for my favorite insecure writer, I like all of them that I have ever read, for the simple reason that I like imperfect characters.

Bish Denham said...

I remember reading Catcher in high school and not being able to get into it. I thought I was the only one.

I don't know if he's insecure, maybe misanthropic, but Eeyore always struck a chord with me.

Southpaw said...

Your question totally stumped me. It's not that I don't have an answer, I'm sure I do, but I just can't think of anyone.

Julie said...

I hadn't heard of The Arranger, but I'm curious to read it now. Although I also wonder if it might make me feel more insecure if it hits that close to home to our current society and where it might be headed. Interesting post!

Ann Best said...

I read Catcher in high school, about 6 years after it was published! Such critical fury over it back then - the so-called language, tame of course, as you point out, by today's standards. I haven't read the book since then. I keep thinking I will, and now reading your post... if it were digital I would - if it were priced under five dollars!

I agree with you that a totally secure - let's add totally happy - character would be boring, and definitely NOT realistic!
Ann Best, Author of In the Mirror, A Memoir of Shattered Secrets

Arlee Bird said...

Misha -- You should read both of the classics for sure.

Bish -- Maybe the reactions people like you and I had were related to a lack of disaffection in our lives making us less able to relate to Caulfield.

Southpaw - I know what you mean. I have the same problem when I see a question like that.

Julie --I don't know if The Arranger will make you feel insecure so much as illustrate where we are probably going as a society.

Ann -- If Catcher is available as an e-book, I don't know why it wouldn't be around 99 cents since it's been in print so long.

Lee

Anita said...

Great reviews as always.

I can't think of any insecure characters at the moment; it's late and I'm a little tired. But, because I just read Gone With the Wind, I will comment on Scarlett. In my opinion, she is the opposite of insecure. All throughout the book, I latched on to her statement, "I just won't think about that right now." She said it SO many times, and I envied her ability to put things out of her mind, onto the back burner - to be dealt with at another time.

Empty Nest Insider said...

I agree with Kelly about how students still enjoy Catcher In The Rye while many of their parents have outgrown it. Thanks for reminding me to catch up on my reading. Julie

Melissa Bradley said...

I enjoyed Catcher for what it was when I was in college. I like the story, but I did not sympathize with Holden. I think that kids that age are always insecure, but do I think that kids face more problems today, maybe, maybe not. I think the problem is that there is way too much out there and kids lack a solid way to disseminate. But this is about insecure characters and I am getting off track. :)

Insecurities in a character are very much a reflection of their creators. I play out some of my insecurities with my characters because if I can figure out something in black and white, then maybe I can change it within me.

Arlee Bird said...

Anita -- But, perhaps Scarlett's unwillingness to think about things displays an insecurity. In the story she has to overcome much loss to become stronger and ends up having a lot of people make decisions for her. At least as I remember the story.

Julie -- Catcher is certainly a story that might be more generationally appreciated. Now that I've outgrown some of Holden's irresponsible thinking I find it more difficult to relate to it, but there were some aspects that I did understand and even now agree with. I'm glad I finally read the book.

Melissa -- From what I've read about J.D. Salinger, Caulfield was basically the author himself. I think it's probably pretty common for authors to reflect themselves in their characters in the insecurities as well as other traits. And like you indicate, writing is a catharsis by which we play with things we think about and believe.

Lee