Inappropriate Guilt?

April 28, 2012

I seem to have misplaced two or three months here.

Blame it on the terrorist puppy, who is now a terrorist adolescent. We surely don’t deserve the behavior to which he subjects us. We aren’t in that superindulgent class of dog parents who give their mutt all-natural raw beef treats and scrupulously avoid the word “no.” Look, our boy doesn’t even have his own Facebook page. And we are firm believers in behavioral limits; for example, when he gets in the bed and wiggles under the covers, he is not allowed to put his head on my pillow and snore into my ear. Limits!

Perhaps I should say that such behavior is inappropriate—the term that has replaced bad, wrong, offensive, etc. It’s the word my 20-some nieces use when a middle-aged man (i.e., over 30) hits on them. I find it a strange word, in part because it connotes such a vague, shifting moral ground. It implies that the behavior might be OK if certain conditions were changed, if the timing were different, if …

Of course, an uncertain moral ground is perfect for fiction writers. Like an adventurous puppy, we like to stick our noses in those sticky, swampy areas. However, a book I just read makes me think that in some cases we may overreact to the muckiness by digging too hard and too deep for solid turf.

Think about recent tales that turn on a character’s guilt. Ian McEwan’s Atonement comes to mind—a narrative set in motion by a lie told by a 13-year-old, a nasty falsehood with tragic consequences. The man she accuses goes to jail, gets out only by volunteering for World War II, gets killed in the field. Still, the shameful deed was committed by a barely adolescent girl, in part because of her misunderstanding and wild imagination (she’s a budding novelist), so is it really appropriate (that word again) that she spend the rest of the novel, covering many years of her life, with a pressing need to atone?

The book I’ve just finished is Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. In this case the perpetrator of the nasty act is a 20ish young man, Tony Webster, who writes an intemperate letter to his ex-girlfriend who has taken up with his best pal, who later commits suicide. Not till page 161 of 163 do we finally grasp the consequences of this missive. By accident, the letter cursed the two lovers with a miscellaneous semi-prediction of something that more or less happened. As it turns out, the letter prompted the friend to do X, which led to untoward behavior with Y, which resulted in surprise outcome Z (loosely implied in the letter), which occasioned the friend to take the drastic way out of his predicament. We’re asked to believe that, with these truths revealed, the words of his long-ago rant will “forever haunt” Tony. He’s prey to a sharp remorse that, he reminds us, literally means biting again. Luckily he’s old by now, so he won’t be bitten for long.

I find it hard to conceive that a mature adult—and Tony is quite an ordinary kind of guy, as he readily tells us—would be haunted by a culpability established only through a long skein of consequences that verge on coincidence. “Imagine the strength of the bite,” he demands, when he discovers that his angry curses have come true; this “has a shiver of the otherworldly about it,” he claims (p. 151), but I don’t buy it. Regret, yes; stunned disbelief, sure. Everlasting remorse, no.

These two novelists—both British, both Man Booker winners (Barnes for this book, McEwan for an earlier one)—seem to be reaching for sins their characters can feel guilty about. McEwan’s attempt is more convincing, since the consequences are more direct. Still, I want guilt to be purer and simpler, rawer, less intellectual.

Thus an aphorism: Guilt without appropriate guiltiness is inappropriate.

One Response to “Inappropriate Guilt?”

  1. […] implication that having the narrator express guilt can be the easy way out ties in with my previous post on Jeremy Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. In that Man Booker–winning novel, Barnes does exactly what Marc worries about, and it bothered […]


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