>The empty tropes of transgressive fiction


“Ready-made Rebellion: The empty tropes of transgressive fiction”—Jonathan Dee in the April 2005 Harper’s Magazine.

“Good fiction has never been about moral instruction; it would be much easier to write if it were. Its more imposing task is to do justice to the inexhaustible complexity of human motivation.” So Dee begins in his review of Seconds of Pleasure: Stories, by Neil LaBute; Music for Torching, by A.M. Homes; Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys, by Will Self; Survivor, by Chuck Palahniuk; and Frisk, by Dennis Cooper.

Dee says we expect writers “to help make comprehensible the reasons why people act the way they act, why they transgress, why they fail to transgress.” Which is why, he says, the “fictional outlaw” has something to teach us. What he looks at in this review, though, is a “frustrating trope”—that “even the most shocking transgression” is credible if a character has no reason whatsoever for carrying it out.

Dee takes on LaBute first. The characters in his stories are a “troupe of hideous men,” whom LaBute insists are ordinary Everymen (most without names, even). As a substitute for developing character, Dee says, LaBute borrows the technique of using cultural referents (brand names, mostly) as cues for how the reader should see the character (he wears Jockeys and Dockers, drives a Lexus, etc.). “Off-the-rack character creation,” Dee calls it. “The approach to character,” he says, “is always from the outside in.” Labute, Dee believes, think he is merely holding up a mirror to the reader, so the reader can see life as it really is, without having to actually create characters (or motivation); furthermore, what is the point if all women are harridans—Dee’s word, but it’s a good one—and all men are “pathologically angry.” There is no need to create unique characters because everyone is the same. Dee: “It’s a way of ducking what a more sophisticated writer might consider his primary artistic responsibility: namely, a credible motivation for his imaginary characters to say and do the things they say and do.” Putting words in LaBute’s mouth, Dee says LaBute would dispute that this is his job, that it isn’t his fault that people are the way they are.

Dee goes on to discuss Milan Kundera, whose approach at first blush seems the same, except that Kundera instead of abdicating the responsibility, as LaBute does (according to Dee), he suspends judgment, introducing layers of complications that frustrate the reader’s ability to make those judgments. “Moral judgment is not ignored or banished or declared moot but suspended, in the way that, say, a bridge is suspended: via tension between opposites, a tension that, at least for the term of the story itself, holds at bay or impatience to make up our minds.” That sense of opposition should be generated internally, Dee says. If the sense of opposition depends on something outside the fiction itself—on shock value—then the work is taking the easy way out.

He then shows how the works of Homes, Self, Palahniuk and Cooper fit this pattern. For example: “Self’s detached, condescending tone is meant not to frustrate judgment to but encourage it. No effort is made to render these characters or their desires. Their amorality is not developed from inside in a way that might make it credible or even frighteningly comprehensible.” One natural consequence, Dee believes, is that many of these novels have trouble ending: “Characters who experience no resistance and who act for no reason cannot be altered by events; they don’t develop; they just intensify.”

No response in the May issue from LaBute, et al., but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is one in June.

About the author


  1. >Thank you for bringing this to our attention. I’m running to the bookstore now to buy a copy of Harper’s! Pam P.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.