REAL ROT: My Newfound Impatience with Antiheroes
A Craft Essay by Tom Gammarino
Something is wrong with me. Last week, when I tried to re-watch one of my favorite TV series of all time, Breaking Bad, I made it through just two episodes before calling it quits. The writing still struck me as masterful, but I just wasn’t in the mood to follow an essentially good man into hell.
This was quite a shift. I’ve always felt bored by conventionally likable characters, preferring the knottier psychodramas of antiheroes who do good things for bad reasons or bad things for (what they take to be) good reasons. In books too, the darker things got, and the more twisted and confused a story’s moral calculus, the more I felt invested in the stakes. Not for me was the wholesome do-gooder; I wanted Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Bigger Thomas in Native Son, Bird in A Personal Matter, even Humbert Humbert in Lolita.
Once I became a writer myself, my output resembled my input. I’ve written six novels to date and published three. Each is the outgrowth of some obsessive intellectual interest I had at the time, but what’s consistent through all of them is the way the inflexible romantic ideals of the protagonists end up transforming them into something like monsters.
I suspect this affinity for antiheroes had something to do with my twelve years of Catholic schooling, when my young imagination was steeped in the moral rags-to-riches tales of figures like Augustine of Hippo, who found many a brothel en route to finding God. I’m sure, too, that it had something to do with the conservative, blue-collar milieu I grew up in.
Except for the time my mom read me a book called So That’s How I Was Born, we never talked about sex in my house, so I did what kids do and sublimated my developing libido into things like bikes and rock music. In sixth grade, I wrote a book report on Hammer of the Gods, a biography of Led Zeppelin, and learned that John Bonham had once penetrated a groupie with a fish. I admit I gave very little thought to what that woman’s experience was like, but then I didn’t give much thought to Bonham’s either. All I knew was that the scene was outrageous, that it shocked me, and that this wasn’t an altogether bad feeling. In fact, it was sort of exhilarating. Most books put me to sleep; this one had woken me up.
A little later, I discovered heavy metal, and sure enough, the scarier and more intense the music got–the greater the juxtaposition between high and low, light and dark, sacred and profane–the more it appealed to me. I found it, in a word, stimulating.
It was only natural, then, that when I became a serious reader and writer my gut and scalp chased after some of those same aesthetic pleasures. It wasn’t enough that the forces of darkness be outside the protagonist either; I wanted light and dark to duke it out right in the crucible of the main character’s skull. I never had any doubt that the most compelling character in The Lord of the Rings was Gollum, or that brooding Batman was more interesting than Superman.
From a craft point of view, I regarded inner turmoil as a sort of shading, dissonance, spice. Of course, I understood that writing fiction meant playing God to some degree, and that part of the job was to reward and punish characters’ behavior. But while the moral frameworks I created may have rhymed with those I took to exist in reality, they were essentially constructs, sealed off, and self-contained. There’s a moment in my novel King of the Worlds, however, when the narrator breaks the fourth wall to hint at a relationship between reality and the fiction of a writer suspiciously like me: “…maybe that, in the last analysis, is what your work is all about: creating a more beautiful, more coherent world than the one we are met with, compensating in whatever way you can for the junk heap of broken dreams signified by the word ‘America’.” It may be somewhere in that dialectical relationship between word and world that my sudden impatience with the antihero lies.
Over the last four years, I watched some of the most antiheroic humans in history run the United States, and their antics were so craven, and so horrifically consequential, that I simply lost any interest I might otherwise have had in how they had gotten to that point in their lives. It’s possible that this contraction of my empathy is a symptom of the dangerous polarization of our politics and that I should be pushing myself harder than ever to stretch my imagination across the proverbial aisle. Even from a purely aesthetic point of view, though, I never felt especially interested in those elected leaders and self-styled patriots responsible for pulling the US out of the Paris Accord, for putting kids in cages, for smashing their way into the US Capitol. Instead, I felt something like what Hannah Arendt, in her report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, called the “banality of evil.” As she put it in a letter:
It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defying,” as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality.” Only the good has a depth that can be radical.
I’m guilty of having once believed that goodness had something to do with simplicity, that unalloyed virtue was inherently boring. Nowadays, I am far more interested in, say, Greta Thunberg, an essentially good person doing good things for good reasons, than I ever was in the man-child who punched down at her from his bully pulpit. Greta is no less complex or interesting for being heroic; I dare say she’s all the more so.
One reviewer of my first novel, Big in Japan, wrote in Seattle’s The Stranger, “Gammarino shows real promise as an author who can crack open the head of a warped individual and show us the rot inside.” I was grateful for that at the time—confirmation that I’d achieved my aims—but having seen enough rot for a while, I’m wondering what else I can do.
Tom Gammarino is the author of the novels King of the Worlds and Big in Japan, and the novella Jellyfish Dreams. Recent shorter works have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, Entropy, The Tahoma Literary Review, and Hawai’i Pacific Review. Originally from Philadelphia, he lives on Oʻahu, where he teaches literature and writing to high school kids. You can find him online at tomgammarino.com