In Defense of Criminals and Perverts

Peter Lorre in M

Peter Lorre in M

At one point in Chris Ware’s graphic novel Building Stories, the protagonist, unsuccessfully trying to find just the right book to bring with her on vacation, asks herself, “Why does every ‘great book’ have to always be about criminals or perverts?  Can’t I just find one that’s about regular people living everyday life?”  Her question could almost be Ware’s.  Sure, by having a character ask the question, Ware is, in a way, disowning it, yet the way that Building Stories, and practically all of Ware’s oeuvre, fulfills what the protagonist longs for, the question seems to express Ware’s artistic intentions.  Building Stories focuses on the hopes, aspirations, and disappointments of everyday people living out everyday life in its most ordinary circumstances.  There’s nary a criminal or pervert to be found.

While I greatly admire Building Stories and Ware’s work in general, I insist we continue welcoming criminals and perverts in our literature.  I don’t think they’re inherently more fascinating than “regular people,” but through their “irregularity,” they help to throw into sharp relief the meaning of “regular.”  By providing narratives about shattering society’s laws and taboos, novels about criminals and perverts can reveal assumptions underpinning a culture’s sense of normalcy, allowing us at least a glimpse of some deeper truth, more directly than stories about “regular people living everyday life,” in which those assumptions usually remain unstated, though not necessarily unexamined.

In the end, though, it isn’t really important who is depicted—the outré or the ordinary.  Rather, it is how acutely the story is observed and how suggestively it is written that matters.  As Lionel Trilling once intimated, great writing “[throws] out a sentence or metaphor which suddenly illuminates some dark corner of life.”  At his best, which Building Stories often is, Ware’s work does this.  But it strikes me that an author like Dostoyevsky or Nabokov—both dismissed by Ware’s narrator—is compelled to come up with the kinds of sentences or metaphors to which Trilling refers because the territory they’re mapping is so dark.  It’s not the darkness that makes those works great, but the skill it takes to illuminate such dark corners.

Peter Sellers as Quilty in Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of LOLITA

Peter Sellers as Quilty in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of LOLITA

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