As suspense author Laura Benedict once explored in a well-researched essay, unlikable protagonists in fiction are hard to write. Whether it’s the self-pity of Anna Karenina, the egoism of Dorian Gray, the deception of Gone Girl’s Amy, or the evil Mr. Ripley, writers who create unlikable lead characters have to work harder to keep readers turning the pages. The writing either has to be a work of a genius—Tolstoy—or the protagonist has to provide a kind of dark charism to draw the reader in. Thomas Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley is a killer, but his cunning and high intelligence provide a kind of rush that engages from the first page.
Elinor Hanson, the main character in Jung Yun’s new novel O Beautiful, is completely unlikable. Hanson is a forty-something former New York model, the daughter of a Korean mother and an American GI father, who is pulling out of the business to go into journalism. Richard, her professor from grad school, offers her a fantastic assignment. She will travel to North Dakota, a state she grew up in, and write for a prestigious magazine called The Standard about the oil boom in that state. Elinor grew up in Marlow, a town near the Bakken, where the drilling takes place. It’s the chance of a lifetime, an opportunity for some gratitude—for the good looks that made her a successful model, for the financial ability to go to grad school as an adult, for the chance to make her new career due to the generosity of a former teacher.
There’s only one problem. Actually, there are several problems. They all involve Elinor. Elinor is shallow, egotistical, deeply misandrist, whiny, and poor at her new job. Whereas even the darkest character will have something that draws you closer—you just couldn’t help but guffaw at times at Heath Ledger’s maniacal Joker in The Dark Knight Rises—Elinor is a poison pill.
The trouble starts on the first page, on her flight from Manhattan to Avery, North Dakota. “Men talked to her on planes,” O Beautiful opens. “She doesn’t invite it anymore; it’s just something that happens.” A man on the plane with a tattoo that says 187TH INFANTRY DIVISION. DESERT STORM strikes up a conversation. After she takes a tranquilizer and passes out, she comes to and thinks the man may have sexually assaulted her. The man just looks at her like she’s crazy. Men talk to Elinor, flirt with her, cat call her, scold her for asking for interviews, ask her if she’s a stripper, say racist things. Men are a swarm of evil. It’s particularly bad in Bakken during the oil boom and the Trump years. The pickup trucks all feature bumper stickers promoting Republican politicians. Elinor’s own father was a racist who only married a Korean woman to have a “submissive bride.”
If men-are-evil is going to be the premise, then Yun should have made O Beautiful a noir revenge thriller. She could have portrayed Elinor as a charismatic character, highly intelligent, who uses her beauty as a distraction to get some payback for the garbage she has put up with from the macho putzes who demean her. Yet Elinor is dim and petty. In the first few chapters, she arrives from New York and then runs the gauntlet of male wise cracks and come-ons, retreating into an ice cream shop. There she asks the male teenager behind the counter if he knows where to buy marijuana. He leads her to the back of the shop where they smoke a bowl together. Then Elinor leaves. I’m not sure what she learned in journalism school, but Elinor needs to ask for a refund. Here she is, gaining the trust and getting high with a kid who lives in the town and literally sees hundreds if not thousands of people from the town every week. She does not take the opportunity to spend several hours with him and record everything he says. It’s like being a baseball writer and avoiding Yankee Stadium.
There’s more. Elinor goes to a diner to interview Harald Begum, one of the most successful businessmen in Avery. He’s “the unofficial mayor, the luckiest son of a bitch alive, and the richest man in town.” Of course, “Harry” orders for both of them, annoying Elinor. Harry has been in North Dakota since 1971, making his fortune off of mineral rights. Harry believes in the American Dream—“People want to believe that they can work hard and get rich and make a nice life for themselves.” Harry talks about “this Mexican kid,” a hard worker he hired, who has worked his way up the chain and now owns a house and puts a little sister through college.”
Elinor is not impressed: “She might like Harry’s story more if he’d stop calling his employee ‘the Mexican kid’ and used his actual name just once.” It doesn’t matter that Harry just as easily could have called a first-generation Irish immigrant “an Irish kid,” or that Harry has an argument with a white diner by saying that he, Harry, hires immigrant workers because they are more sober and reliable than their white counterparts who are flattened by depression and numb with opioid addiction. Everything for Elinor is race and woke politics.
To anyone who spends hours in break rooms with Americans who have come from all different places, from Ireland to Africa, the thing that is always the most noticeable is how wonderfully America works—how everybody usually just gets along.
This is not to say that there is no place in fiction for criticizing America and its sins, both past and present. Toni Morrison, John Updike, Norman Mailer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Joyce Carol Oats, Amy Tan, James Baldwin, and Jonathan Franzen have all produced novels that explored the racial, spiritual, and familial tensions of living in the United States. Yet these authors created characters who, even while sometimes deeply flawed, act like real human beings that deserved at least some empathy. Even pulp writers could criticize America with some wit and subtlety. O Beautiful reminded me of a book with a similar plot, Jim Thompson’s 1952 pulp classic The Killer Inside Me. That novel also takes place in an oil boom town, Central City, Texas. As in O Beautiful, the town is overrun with roughnecks and outsiders. The protagonist is an evil man named Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford. At one point Ford is sent to tell a woman in the town to stop selling herself for money:
I was feeling a little uncomfortable. I hardly knew what I was going to say to her. Because maybe we’re kind of old-fashioned, but our standards of conduct aren’t the same, say, as the east or middle-west. Out here you say yes ma’am and no ma’am to anything with a skirt on; anything white, that is. Out here, if you catch a man with his pants down, you apologize…even if you have to arrest him afterwards. Out here you’re a man and a gentleman, or you aren’t anything. And God help you if you’re not.
This is both very funny, and a sly indictment of the hypocrisy, racism, and closed-mindedness of Central City—and too much of America—in 1952, two years before Brown v Board of Education. Aw-shucks Lou Ford cares about appearances, and if you don’t keep them up, well then God help you—he will make sure of that with his own bare hands. Ford ultimately discovers that the people of Central City—especially the district attorney—care about law and order. Like most Americans, they are fair.
Similarly, the people of North Dakota and the rest of America are not the apes that Yun makes them out to be. Elinor reveals that her own Asian mother fled Marlow to escape the men and the racism of the town. Elinor discovers her calling is to use her new journalism career to expose the sins of red America (she seems not to know that the punitive press has been harping on the theme of evil American for half a century). Elinor is like a woke version of Forrest Gump, a character loved by conservatives who nonetheless does not change over the course of an entire novel. Still, Forrest did appreciate Americans, from soldiers to hippies to fishermen. Surrounded by caricatures, Elinor just goes from woke to woker. The reader suspects that author Yun hasn’t had much interaction with the kind of people she fictionalizes.
I myself have written about how working manual labor jobs, from washing dishes to working at Home Depot, sharpens skills as a writer. Such jobs put you directly in touch with the working people of America. It doesn’t take long to realize how different they are from how they are perceived by the models, movie-makers, and journalists on the coasts. To anyone who spends hours in break rooms with Americans who have come from all different places, from Ireland to Africa, the thing that is always the most noticeable is how wonderfully America works—how everybody usually just gets along.