Lacking Character is author Curtis White’s first work of fiction in fifteen years. The veteran surrealist has written books including Metaphysics in the Midwest, Memories of My Father Watching TV, and The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers—ranging from short fiction to novels to essays. His new outing is a novel-adjacent philosophical exercise. What counts as character? How do we delineate one individual from another? What divides man from beast, guinea pig from feral infant? Lacking Character dresses these questions up in thought experiments, humor, sex, and some really hilarious literary parodies, and like the best of these types of books, never comes to any conclusions about the state of the human mind—instead White lets readers draw their own conclusions.
There seem to be three polestars in the book. One is the Queen of Spells, a magical woman who lives on the equally magical Isle of Islay. The second is, well, God. But that character stays off-page in a “Being Behind The Curtain” type of way, and since we never directly meet It, we never quite get a handle on Its role. And the third is the author.
Wait, wait, come back! I know this sort of authorial interruption can be annoying (or, in the case of some of David Foster Wallace’s work, heartbreaking) but White uses his powers for good here. The author comes and goes, first as a slightly stand-offish, fairly omniscient narrator, then as more of an actor. What makes it work is that, like many good authors, he soon learns that he can’t control his characters. He can try to kill them and dispose of their bodies in lakes, but a few pages later there they are, sopping wet and glaring at him. He can try to engage them in witty repartee about theology, but then they’ll just get him drunk and passed out on a fictional lawn.
His story begins with a nested narrative of a homunculous named Percy, who is created and sent to call on the Marquis of the town of N—, Illinois. Percy, who looks uncannily like the Lone Ranger, doesn’t know he’s a homunculous created by the Queen of Spells. But as he comes to recognize his genesis, rather than this becoming a haunting meditation on the concept of self, it becomes increasingly clear that Percy is no less a master of his fate than any of the other characters. None of them are “human,” and while they might have free will, they are also unspooling in the pages of a work of fiction. Of course by the end of the book it’s become clear that “Curtis White” is his own homunculous, subject to both insane stories and serious threats from the very characters he created.
The story is told as a series of hilarious setpieces. Percy, unable to get home to the Queen of Spells, must make his way in Illinois, and does stints as a member of a feral dog pack and as a sort of erotic therapist. The Marquis, addicted to weed and Halo binges, allows the town of N— to fall into decrepitude, but his grandson Jake attempts a grand quest to find that holiest of grails: a paying job. The Queen travels to Illinois in search of Percy, but finds America baffling and tedious in equal measure. That’s all before the author himself joins the plot, arguing with a painter about hats, and deciding that the landscapes he paints are as fake and constructed as the paintings themselves.
Woven around all of these quests, side-quests, and pure tangents are a series of literary parodies of everything from Cormac McCarthy to One Thousand and One Nights to Flann O’Brien, all dotted with quotes from philosophical luminaries like Plato, Hegel, Rilke, and my personal favorite, Sufjan Stevens.
The McCarthy section is particularly fun:
They kept to the deer and the boar path through the pines. It smelled wonderful, like rarest oxygen and dirt, dry and purged of every impurity. It was just simply World and it was so pleasant that it was distracting from their perilous task. At one point even Rory looked over at Jake and, well, he didn’t smile, but he seemed to think about smiling, which was a lot for man whose face looked more like a carved mask of some island god, the slits of his eyes hard against the sunset.
Arguments between creature and creator are told via long, winding anecdotes about living with dogs, with occasional flashes of naked vulnerability that mirror exactly the conversation I plan to have with Death eventually:
All I was hoping was that I could tell a story that would persuade you not to do what you’re going to do. That’s really all I was thinking, but I give up. Whether I tell a good story or a bad, it doesn’t matter. I will never prove to you that I am not what you think I am.
And any book that can veer between just those two quotes above belongs on my shelf, but there’s so much more ridiculousness and plot knotting itself up that I fear I’m giving you but a shadow of the book in this review. You’ll also notice I’m not saying “postmodern” anywhere. The author himself abjured the term in an essay, and far be it from me to force Curtis White to be a character in my own narrative. But this doesn’t feel to me like a tired pomo book—Lacking Character is fun. It takes thoughts that normally only visit us during the darkest teatimes of our souls and tickles them until they fall down laughing. Yes, Percy is a simulacrum, a golem made with little forethought and no real purpose…so what does that matter if he has fun schtupping troubled suburbanites into an illusion of happiness? If we’re all just lost here, wandering in circles in a vast, indifferent, ultimately meaningless universe, why not attack life with a sense of play? And why get so hung up on meaning? What does meaning even mean? What does it mean to have character?
In our current world, where everything can seem all desperate, all the time, it’s nice to find a book that’s willing to take serious concepts and use them in the service of silliness and joy.
Lacking Character is available from Melville House.