Curtis White is a master of the digressive, philosophical novel. His new work Lacking Character provides another excellent example of this tradition.
Lacking Character is very funny, bursting with wit and generosity. It centers on Percy, a messenger from the land of the faeries, the Hebrides. He has been sent by the Queen of Spells to a University town in Central Illinois to deliver a message to an unnamed Marquis. Percy wears a mask like Zorro and a fedora called a Borsalino. He is Tyrone Powers as Zorro or Guy Williams as Zorro. White cracks wise on the flickering persistence of these images. Percy is a charming raconteur. He encounters a mixed welcome in Illinois, with the Marquis living in a state of visible decline. The last of a dying house, the Marquis surrounds himself with an entourage of bros, and spends his time playing Halo and eating pizza. His wife is an infuriating “tart.” Dismayed and rejected, Percy wanders the zombie streets of the Midwestern university town, eventually becoming a kind of folk hero, living as a kept man, and fetish icon. When the Queen of Spells arrives to retrieve her golem son, the enchantments begin in earnest.
In the past, White has incorporated the mythology of Americanness in mass media. His novels Memories of my Father Watching Television and Requiem dove into the information cultures that create our thoughts and bodies as Americans. For most of the 20th century, television was memory, our empire of dreams. White recalls these shared histories, the cinema flicker against the back of our eyelids. With the emergence of information ubiquity, and the further fragmentation of media through the internet, these constructions of self are further frayed. Our self-perceptions and mythologies are obscure and changeable. His more recent work, The Science Delusion and We Robots, interrogates the 21st century cult of scientism in the service of personality. There are clear echoes of certain technologists and philosophers in White’s work (Canguilhem, Nietzsche). Drawing on a clear vitalism, he outlines notions of artificial intelligence being only slightly less elusive than the possibility of naturally occurring intelligence, with the human body as more than a talking reed and certainly less than any coherent system of expressed traits. Against these tensions White draws on classical traditions of the humorous novel. Largely a picaresque, Lacking Character, revels in fantasia, bawd, and mythology. It evokes Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, and the historical picaresque. There is Rabelais as well as the Soviet fairy tales of Kapek or Kharms, and the French symbolist films of Cocteau or Demy.
The core of this silly novel is a sense of helplessness against the pathetic. A major trend within internet culture comes in the curation of the persona. This is the gauzy lighting of filters and winsome travel albums, the insane and impossible snaps, mood boards, and wish lists. This environment encourages aspirational persona-making divorced from the generalized life experience of social exchange mediated through bland multinational corporations (Target, Verizon, Jimmy Johns, etc.) Curtis White delights in these anonymous corporate institutions and the influence they have on us. People’s lives are not beautiful; they are barely even people’s lives.
White quotes Novalis: “Do all humans have to be human beings?”
The central protagonist of the novel is a messenger from the Queen of Spells, not a human but a man formed for the purpose of serving her will. This early example of automation recalls classical applications of magic, as an alternative to scientific and clerical authority, besides the contemporary understanding of humanness as something experienced only in concert. The novel is shaggy in the way that alternative standup comics can be shaggy. And at every plot turn it becomes clear this plot largely serves the gag, the idea, the aside. This is one of the terrific joys that still come with reading novels. Unlike most media culture that seems to almost beat us to death with literal representation, a novelist with a light touch can still tell jokes. Mythology and fairy tale is ripe for parody: In the face of insolence, the Queen of Spells produces the Sword of Finality, the mystical Hebrides are a well of occult power, and Percy might be happier in Piers Plowman. But the novel is firmly grounded in the contemporary American moment. White skewers post-industrial landscapes, recognizing the humor and uncertainty in sprawl: “Then he walked across Veterans Parkway, where he was narrowly missed by cars in every lane. Exhausted, he sat among the enormous concrete blocks left behind where the old Holiday Inn had been torn down.” He mocks beer culture in boring Midwestern college towns: After being shrunk by the Queen of Spells the unnamed Midwestern town turned to politics, creating a “Bigger Party.” But the students misinterpreted this an as an excuse to hold the “biggest, baddest” keg-fest ever. It’s silly, and happily engages the possibility of living our lives. The way our bodies are striving towards humanness. The golem, living among the dogs, encounters resistance to Kant’s “transcendental deduction.” And later the way adult diversions come out as an excuse for play. “Freud was right to say that there is childhood sexuality, but he was wrong to assume that there is adult sexuality. Sex is where we go when we want to flee adulthood.”
White does not write the kind of novel that is turned into a blockbuster movie, rather he comments on the increasing persistence of this expectation. In the face of a stalled plot, there is the sudden introduction of new characters. There is a late story digression into a Cormac McCarthy riff on trees. Above all, White avoids self-seriousness. Instead, Lacking Character is funny and heartbreaking.