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The Appeal of the Antiheroine

Two new novels get not-nice just right

Warner Home Video

One wonders if Publishers Weekly contributor Annasue McCleave Wilson wishes she could get a do-over. In a much-discussed April 29 interview for the periodical with novelist Claire Messud, Wilson posited that she wouldn’t be friends with Nora, the narrator of Messud's latest book The Woman Upstairs. “Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.” That question, and Messud’s understandably testy answer (“If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities”), ignited several new rounds in the ongoing debate about whether characters—especially female characters—need to be likable.

The short answer, of course, is: They never did. William Makepeace Thackeray knew this, which was why Vanity Fair chronicled the social-climbing exploits of Becky Sharp with crackling élan at the expense of her simpering, supposedly heroic counterpart Amelia Sedley. Margaret Mitchell knew this, which is why every leading actress clamored to play Scarlett O'Hara in the film version of Gone With the Wind instead of her more beatific rival Melanie Hamilton. Last year, Gillian Flynn married two antiheroes to each other in Gone Girl. Alissa Nutting's debut novel, Tampaa first-person account of a 26-year-old teacher's NC-17-rated paean to 14-year-old boys—has already generated strong chatter in advance of its release next month.

The fallacy of the “likable” female protagonist assumes the reader can only empathize, identify, emulate, or appreciate someone who behaves in concert with some idea of what is proper. It assumes a moral simplicity that does not exist and, worst of all, a failure of imagination. It's the writer's job to create a fictional universe that is convincing and, for the duration of the book or series, consistent within the given narrative parameters. It is not the writer's job to play to the crowd.

The net result of the friendly-character impulse is a dangerous one: a community of readers who seek out palatable extensions of the self and shut out perspectives that don't fall within their preferred Gaussian bell curve. More fool they to miss out on two debut antiheroine exemplars that comment on the dark side of domesticity with lacerating exactitude. Playing it light could not get it this right.

By some cosmic accident, the titular character of Elizabeth Silver's debut novel, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, has had over a decade to wrestle with a version of the “likability” problem. “In this world,” Noa begins her first-person confession, “you are either good or evil. If not, then a court or a teacher or a parent is bound to tag your identity before you've had a chance to figure it out on your own.” That world is death row—where Noa has been since the age of 25, when she was convicted of the murder of another woman. During the trial, Noa kept silent, a puzzling strategy after pleading not-guilty. Her behavior seems even stranger to the young lawyer determined to visit her for the final six months before her execution—“X-Day”—and to find some way to keep her alive.

“If I were to offer an explanation of why I did what I did, half of the public wouldn't believe it, and the other half wouldn't think it changed a thing,” Noa tells the reader early in her written monologue. Everyone else—especially the victim's lawyer mother, Marlene—is “so fascinated with the accursed 'why'” of Noa's crime, “as if it were born in some petri dish, fused together by the toxic roots of my genetic tree.” From the first, Noa does not appear to care. She certainly doesn't demand the reader like her.

The wonderful contradiction of the antiheroine is that she cannot help but narrate her story unreliably, most of all to herself. Noa may accept her fate to die by the State of Pennsylvania's hand. But the closer she is to X-Day, the more anxious she grows to commit something resembling the truth to pen and paper, lest her greatest fear—“that I'll just be nameless. And then nobody will remember Noa P. Singleton”—come true.

Noa's voice is so pungent and potent as she describes the facts and pooh-poohs the theories of her criminality that it's a small letdown when Silver switches perspectives to Marlene. In letters to her dead daughter, Marlene relates her side of the story—the overwhelming grief, the unrelenting anger, the desire for retribution—and her tangled, almost familial connections with Noa. Despite the awkward contrivance of the epistolary device, Silver clearly conveys how Marlene's maternal instinct leads her down a spiral of increasingly corrupt misdeeds that casts her in as much, if not more, of a guilty light than Noa. As a result, we realize the tragic flaw both women share, which is that protecting our loved ones produces greater catastrophe than letting people be. The effect blurs our ability to delineate between criminal and victim, shattering the “mucous-thin terrain where most of life resides.” 

A.S.A. Harrison manages the double-perspective feat with greater narrative consistency in her debut, The Silent Wife. Each alternating chapter adds escalating character revelation, fitting since The Silent Wife presents a long-term coupling that seems unimpeachable on the outside but is slowly rotting from within. (Full disclosure: Harrison and I shared an editor at Penguin.) The protagonist (dubbed “Her” in chapter headers) is Jodi Brett, a therapist of the Adler School—which concerns itself with advancing positive social change and impact —whose life revolves around orderly routine: walking the dog, cooking luxurious meals, seeing clients in her penthouse apartment overlooking the Chicago waterfront. The other half of the couple (“Him) is Todd Gilbert, head of a construction firm, accustomed to life's finer things, and careful to keep his affairs away from Jodi's willfully blind eye.

The inevitable day arrives when Todd can no longer compartmentalize, and the scales fall away from Jodi's eyes, “the stubborn pretense, the chasms of silence” seem to cease abruptly—and yet, Harrison brilliantly reveals how high the incentives are for both to continue in their doomed relationship. At key points, the tenor of the prose changes from the roiling calm of short sentences to barely controlled anger, as when Jodi muses: “Twenty years ago their love erupted in a blaze of passion and shot like a rocket into orbit. That its momentum has lately been slowing is a shabby fact that she hasn't been able to face.”

The horror of The Silent Wife is less about the murderous act both Jodi and Todd are careening toward and more about how entrapped we allow ourselves to become to a certain standard of living. Jodi's behavior, in particular, disturbs because of the reluctant Great Recession–era adjustment that we must all do more with less, accept tiny insults until they accumulate into a giant ball of degradation, and sacrifice personal dignity. Jodi has been and could be any one of us. That final revelation from Harrison, who, regrettably, died before she could see her debut novel published, inflicts the stealth damage of an icepick to the carotid artery.

The antiheroines of The Execution of Noa P. Singleton and The Silent Wife may make it difficult for some readers to like them. But their deeds, however monstrous, are true to their natural character, and command reader attention by cementing their respect—a harder road with a more rewarding payoff.