Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Assistant (Bernard Malamud)

That's right, another book list book! Woo! Of course this is one of the shortest, and it was a really fast read, but still. Making progress.

The back cover says something about the book reading like a prose poem, and it really does. It's spare, heavily symbolic, with shifts in perspective sometimes within one paragraph. Without giving too much away, I'll say it's mostly about one character named Frank and his efforts to become a good person, under the influence of a Jewish grocer named Morris, who is both very good and very poor. There's also Morris's daughter Helen, who's a pretty great character, and who also influences Frank.

I want to talk in a slightly spoilery way about the Helen/Frank subplot, because I had some issues from a feminist point of view. I really liked the fact that this subplot evolved in a non-cliche way, that Helen had self-discipline and didn't just cave in to Frank, that she was not a virgin and didn't get punished for that in the usual "get pregnant, this ruins your life somehow" plot that has been the fate of female characters in literature forever. I also really liked that Frank didn't succeed in his plan to put her through college, that she valued education and was pursuing college of her own accord, albeit with his indirect help.

HOWEVER. It really really bothers me that this is framed as a redemption story and that the text privileges Frank's perspective at the end, after he RAPES HER IN THE PARK. We're supposed to let it go because 1) he is really really sorry, 2) he changes after that to be a genuinely good, self-sacrificing person who essentially saves the family from starving, and 3) Helen is a very strong character who rationalizes the rape to herself all, "well, I was going to sleep with him anyway" (!!!!) but still doesn't forgive him. But... dude, he's a RAPIST.

I'm interested to know what you guys think. We (the readers) are able to forgive Frank for being a thief. But I don't want to forgive him for being a rapist--perhaps because I'm uncomfortable with Malamud's choices here. At one point, Frank muses on the difficulty of being redeemed from one horrible act, but--and this is key--the rape is not presented as that one horrible act. It's presented as a little bit of backsliding on the road to redemption. When, in fact, as far as I'm concerned, it's the worst thing that Frank does.
Phew! Long spoiler bar.

If the author clearly wants us to forgive a character, what happens when we have a hard time doing so? (This is all especially weird contrasted with Money, the last book I read, wherein John Self is a total antihero, way worse than Frank in many ways. He just 1) doesn't cross that line and 2) isn't portrayed quite the same way Frank is, in the end. Plus, the tone of the book is satirical, which makes a huge difference.

Anyway, I really liked reading this, and I was up for a while last night, thinking about it. If you don't mind spoilers or don't plan to ever read this, or have read it already, chime in and let me know how you felt about all of this.

"Whatever she read, he crept into her thoughts; in every book he haunted the words, a character in a plot somebody else had invented, as if all associations had only one end. He was, to begin with, everywhere. So, without speaking of it, they met again in the library. That they were meeting among books relieved her doubt, as if she believed, what possible wrong can I do among books, what possible harm can come to me here?" (p. 131)

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