Mark Blagrave’s characters are unlikeable, but not for the reasons you might expect
The characters in Mark Blagrave’s Salt in the Wounds don’t often like each other, and I see no reason to, either. They’re self-obsessed, a little snobby, sometimes creepy, and usually unlikeable. Unlikeable characters are no reason to dislike a work of fiction. Duddy Kravitz, after all, may be one of the biggest assholes in Canadian literature. But Blagrave misses that part where I fall for the asshole anyway, that crucial moment of sympathy and connection when, perhaps guiltily, I recognize my own mistakes and failures reflected in a fictional character. Maybe others will find these connections in abundance in Blagrave’s characters, or they will be able laugh these characters off. Personally, I was too irritated by their obsessions over novelty salt and creepy erotic fantasies to sympathize with Blagrave’s characters, or to laugh at them.
For the most part, these stories focus on a group of academics at a university in Saint John, N.B., as well as tourist industry workers in Salzburg, Austria. Some of Blagrave’s characters suffer from over-similitude. For example, Martin and Peter, refer to their past trips to Sardinia, guided by Robert Graves’ The White Goddess and James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Martin and one of the Austrian characters, Siegfried, are both taken to fantasizing about women whom they see in public, and neither have any qualms with sleeping around. Two female characters, Liz and Claire, suffer from salt-related diseases. Liz has Addison’s, a glandular disorder in which the body wastes salt and suffers sudden drops in blood pressure. Claire develops ageusia, an inability to taste salt, at the same time that she loses sexual interest in her boyfriend. Across gender lines, the Canadians tend to obsess over their interpersonal and romantic relationships, while the Austrians often give more thought to their country and national memory. Although they often share much in common, these characters have a hard time finding a common language. Behind their relationships lurks a thinly hidden disdain.
In her essay, “Not Here to Make Friends,” Roxane Gay argues that unlikeable characters are often the most compelling characters that books have to offer. Gay criticizes those commentators who use likeability as one of the terms on which to judge literary merit. She identifies what exactly makes a character unlikeable in so many critical discussions:
In many ways, likability is a very elaborate lie, a performance, a code of conduct dictating the proper way to be. Characters who don’t follow this code become unlikable. Critics who fault a character’s unlikability cannot necessarily be faulted. They are merely expressing a wider cultural malaise with all things unpleasant, all things that dare to breach the norm of social acceptability.
Following rules, adhering to social acceptability, and more generally, being nice, are the qualities of likeable characters. So where do Blagrave’s characters step over the bounds of likeability? On several occasions, male characters get honestly creepy. In “Fleur de Sel,” Martin stares at the man mowing his lawn and imagines what the man’s girlfriend must be like. Highlights from the passage include, “Martin leaves the young man’s shorts on, and gives his girlfriend one of those skirts that is really shorts underneath,” and, “Martin can taste the salt on their bodies.” In an ironic moment, Martin debates who this lawn mower is: “He doesn’t look like the kind of guy you’d expect to be mowing lawns at thirty-something … there’s none of the expected beer-sag to his belly, he has all his teeth.” From a previous story, the reader knows that the lawn-mower has an undefined degree in the sciences, and that he is the unhappy owner of the landscaping company. The scene shows, maybe tritely, the limits of first impressions, and that Martin, in addition to imaging erotic scenes involving the help, is quick to jump to conclusions. I don’t like Martin. I don’t think Blagrave likes Martin. I’m not sure Martin likes Martin. Likeability isn’t the problem, so much as Martin’s demand to be liked.
Gay uses the reality T.V. cliché, “I’m not here to make friends,” to describe fictional women who “make so-called bad choices, describe the world exactly as they see it, and are, ultimately, honest and breathtakingly alive.” These are all the qualities that make for compelling fictional characters. Martin, and most of Blagrave’s other characters, belong to that society of people who refuse to overtly criticize and who won’t say what they really mean. They despise each other without saying so. They follow most of the rules, and I, at least, would probably like them a lot more if they didn’t.
Still No Unlikeable Novel
Blagrave has thrown his gloves into the debate over unlikeable characters in fiction
Beyond its shortcomings in characterization, Salt in the Wounds still has a couple of compelling stories. The eponymous story follows Daniel as he traces the steps his mother took when she was marched out of a concentration camp at the end of the Second World War. In Salzburg, Daniel discovers an Austria with a selective historical memory. Across the border, in Obersalzburg, Hitler’s Berghof residence is buried under an Intercontinental Hotel. Standing on top of an SS barracks, Daniel says, “‘I do not like what it was. I do not like what they have made of it now … I think it should not be so easy to forget some things.’” His love interest, Andrea, replies, “‘If here was still the Berghof and the bunkers underneath us, do you think there also would not be people who would come? The new ones, the neo-Nazis, they would make it a shrine.’” They continue into a conversation about whether or not the mountain can still be admired despite Hitler’s residence there, and whether nature and history are separable. The debate over the ethics of memory makes “Salt in the Wounds” the highlight of Mark Blagrave’s collection. Blagrave gathers together his favourite story elements, that is to say, salt, an unexpected romance, and a strange town, and feeds them through a philosophy of national and personal memory.
The strange, dark story, “Jesus,” is another story that surpasses some of the problems that bog down Blagrave’s others. The story features an immigrant to Germany who plays in a quartet at a salt spa in Bad Reichenhall. The quartet mostly plays Mozart. Jesus is forced to perform fellatio for a group of men in exchange for “protection,” because, “A man who looks a little different cannot be too careful in a strange country, no matter how little a difference.” It’s a revolting story, and Blagrave’s plain prose is unsettling and callous. He trusts the reader to recognize rape, even where his protagonist has adjusted, out of survival, to persistent violence and exploitation.
In the final story, “Spilling the Salt,” Liz, the one with Addison’s, hosts a housewarming party. Halfway through, she thinks to herself, “I had never wanted anything as much as I wanted the party to be over.” She then fakes an Addison’s attack. She’s sick of all of her friends, their narrow interests, the salt cellars and Salts of the World that they’ve brought as gifts. Occurring at the very end of Salt in the Wounds, Liz’s trick is almost cathartic. She is as sick of these people as I felt. The story ends just as Liz is forced to come up with a way to explain this to her husband, that she faked the attack to get rid of their friends and be alone with him. After all of the polite smiles, after putting up with each other for so long, a character finally has to confess: “I don’t like them.” And Blagrave closes the book before another lie comes out to diffuse the situation, to placate the offended party, as so many characters have done in the stories preceding this one. This is why I don’t want to dismiss Salt in the Wounds. Blagrave demonstrates a self-consciousness to writing about unlikeable characters, and more importantly, about the lies and compromises that keep friendships and relationships together.