no redemption arcs in hell
redemption, morality in fiction
The other day, I was waiting to cross the West 42nd Street from Bryant Park to the Amazon Go so that I could get a cup of coffee. While I was waiting for the light to change, I was thinking about how my novel comes out next week and wondering what the reception might be like. I try not to let myself think about that too much, otherwise I’d never write anything, and besides, there’s nothing you can do about someone’s feelings about your work. It very seldom has anything to do with how well you feel you’ve written your book or how hard you’ve worked on it. The reader will have their perception and their own sense of your intentions and motivations. I think sometimes, particularly now, what happens between a reader and a story is no longer the construction of a world at the subtle or not subtle promptings from the words as written. Instead, it feels that books are a prelude to a series of moral and aesthetic judgements projected upon the author. Do we read to experience anymore? Why does it feel that experiencing a narrative has become secondary to the reading of novels. Why does it feel that novels are written like seminar papers now?
Anyway, I was thinking about one of the more amusing and annoying strains of critique I’ve gotten since the very beginning of my writing life. That my characters are not very pleasant or very nice, that the worlds they move through do not offer them opportunities of redemption. Landing on this word redemption made me laugh because that’s the word we use now that it’s considered sexist or racist or whatever to demand likability from characters in novels, film, and television. We don’t want likable characters, no, that is old hat, what we want is for morally gray characters to prove themselves worthy in the end and to make up for all of the bad things that they did and the discomfort they caused us. I can’t take redemption in its current contemporary media meaning seriously. Because where is this redemption supposed to come from? What is it supposed to operate within and through?
Redemption comes from a character who has incurred a moral debt through their actions then making good on that moral debt by performing some deed or service or act of heroism that will ameliorate the bad. That seems simple enough. But in the arid secular plains of modernity and its accompanying moral relativism, what is even good? What is even bad? How can there be redemption in the absence of a functioning moral schema? For example, a show like Succession. We spend much energy and many inches of print and websites talking about the show’s gray morality. The fact that the show follows a set of uber-rich people who do things that feel icky to us, but who, within the world of the show, do not themselves feel icky doing those things. In the world of Succession, the only moral debts that accrue are the interpersonal ones among our cast of characters. That is part of the show’s irony. That they blithely destroy democracy in the background, but look at each other and say not cool when someone is rude to them or lies. But when people on social media talk about a redemption for Succession’s characters, they aren’t often talking about what the characters themselves perceive to be their moral debts. No, audiences love to watch Shiv scheme and Tom whimper and Roman deliver incredibly disgusting monologues about sex. What the audience wants is for all of the background stuff to be redeemed somehow, that Kendall will make up for having killed a man and for Roman to make up for cavorting with Nazis and for Shiv to make up for being willing to sell out her progressive principles for power.
But I would say that’s not a redemption arc and it can’t be. You can’t redeem something that is not a moral debt. The moral schema of the show, the moral continuum contained within its storyworld, does not perceive those things to be debts. It perceives Shiv hurting Tom’s feelings, Tom hurting Shiv’s feelings, Kendall hurting his kids by being a bad dad, Roman and Kendall plotting behind Shiv’s back, Shiv plotting behind the boys’ backs—these are the moral debts that need redeeming and it is upon these things that the show spends its energy and out of which it weaves its complications.
I think Succession is actually kind of rare for a modern show, at least in its current season, because Succession bothers with having a system of morality at all. A better example of a show with a system of morality is Billions. To take it one step further, evil is something that exists in-universe in Billions whereas it does not really exist in Succession except the evil we import into it out of our own moral frameworks. We have to supply the evil to Succession in a way we simply don’t with Billions. And for this, we call Billions soapy and less sophisticated and less fun, because we know who the bad guys are and there are bad guys to be known about, actually bad guys who have harmed and done very legibly bad things in-universe for which there have been in-universe consequences.
Now, I know that’s a complicated word evil, and we have all been trained not to seek evil in our media because evil is boring and flat and not very interesting and it’s way cooler to have morally gray characters, etc, whatever. But I actually don’t think it’s possible to achieve moral grayness in fiction without the presence of evil. Like, how can there be anything approaching complexity if your story takes place in a world where people don’t experience actual, full-throated evil. Part of the anesthetizing quality of Succession, part of its magic trick, is that it sneaks things in that feel quite evil but the world makes those things seem so hazy and distant from our main characters that we only register them as evil because we live in the real world and we know the outcomes of such things. Succession counts on this, plays with this perception, and that is part of its appeal, for sure. Stealth wealth, but like, atrocities.
I opened my class this semester by asking my students to try to bring more evil into the worlds they create. I wanted to see characters not accidentally kill someone or accidentally harm someone, but to bring harm to others, on purpose. To destroy things. To enact violence. I tried to get them to write worlds where such things were possible, not that they needed to happen, but that the reader needed to feel as though they might happen. It was not enough for characters to be at a dinner and someone kind of hurt someone’s feelings or someone feel a little lonely and isolated. But could we write scenes that felt that they happened within a moral universe where there was evil and goodness and that these things were fighting it out for the soul of all humankind.
I think part of why evil has fled from contemporary fiction has to do with a fear of melodrama and bad taste. It has to do with an anxiety about being too simple. That we aren’t supposed to moralize. But the thing is, you cannot write morally complex characters without moralizing. Moralizing is not bad. Moralizing defeats art when the system of morality at hand feels forced and constrained and not like a real, alive thing. You must first conceive of a moral universe where it is possible to incur a moral debt. And from there, you must be honest and consistent, tracking your characters as they rise and fall in the ledger of fate. We have this sense that morality in fiction always runs to the prosaic, the prudish, the puritanical, the simplistic.
But, like, tell that to Toni Morrison. Cormac McCarthy.
Morality in fiction is not about trying to ban sucking and fucking. It’s not about trying to clean up or prettify life. It’s about trying to remember that a story has its own moral universe and its own system of weights and measures. And that your job as the writer is to draw meaning out of the relationships between actions and outcomes and between characters within that system of weights and measures, and to follow it honestly. Such a system needs the good as well as the bad, the evil. Both are required for anything to mean something within a fictional world. Otherwise, it has the distant, muted feel of a prestige tv show whose moral grayness is merely an aesthetic affectation, an Instagram filter.
In the absence of such a system of weights and measures, the audience, the reader, will supply their own. Which, I think, leads to a real problem because it’s never wise to substitute an external value system for what should be an internal value system. We end up judging characters by things we would do or say, or the rules of the world as we know it, rather than trying to enter into the moral universe of the fiction. But then, conversely, you sometimes get people acting wild and saying that a show like Succession has no morality and that is part of the fun. And I wonder, what is fun about watching a world where nothing has any meaning. Because that is what a world without morality is. That is what a fiction without morality is. You have no matrix of relations or underlying system with which to make meaning from your actions and the actions of others. It’s pure behaviorism at that point. Which, like, okay, but that’s not very entertaining.
I sometimes think that when people advocate for amoral fictional universes, what they’re really after is a sense of nothing and no one getting harmed or doing harm. Or, an escape from having to do the moral calculus required to hold things and people to account. Or, the exercise of holding someone to account is so traumatizing that they can’t even enter into it within a fictional context where a moral system is already provided for them. I do think that maybe we are all a little tired of having to perform complex moral operations upon virtual people and their little actions because that is essentially the tenor of life on social media. It’s why we gravitate to shows like Love Island and Real Housewives, which arrive not only with preformulated moral schemas, but the characters themselves already have their storylines attached. We know who the villain is. We know who the hero is. We know who is victim and who is victimizer. We just have to bliss out and let the pretty images roll down our brainstems. Having to perform a moral operation feels, therefore, a little disturbing, a little violent, and we don’t enjoy it and won’t do it.
Moral operations in the social media age come with a spike of adrenaline, fight or flight, we must destroy or be destroyed by the shadowy monster we’ve kind of made up in our minds to argue with, and so who can blame the contemporary reader for wanting characters in fiction to perform like the nice people in reality TV, to behave according to script and within the parameters of the villa or the bright streets of the metropolis where all the harm is interpersonal and sometimes white collar crime. We need our constructed worlds to behave because the chop and churn of the scroll is filled with many pinpricks of moral agitation—every tweet, every like, every parsable fragment of a person’s history becomes a site of moral action or inaction. We are called at all times to stand and judge, and honestly, I too get tired of all that and would like to close my eyes and just let a show wash over me. But then, I think that’s kind of boring.
In the neurasthenic hell-paradise of contemporary life, redemption is a fraught notion. I’m not certain we have the capacity to redeem anymore, and if so, where such a capacity would stem from. Jesus can only do that cross thing twice, and he’s already got the next one scheduled. Which is why we demand from the well-behaved strobing worlds of television and film and now literature that characters redeem themselves by becoming that most Christ-like of contemporary virtues: likable. That’s what it comes down to, right? Likability? We care that a character is just a little likable. That we want to root for them. See ourselves in them. We want to identify with them—not entirely, but we want to see ourselves just a little bit in them and we want to believe that there’s a shred of something likable. Not lovable. Likable. Love may be unconditional, but liking is always contingent. And it is through this identification and subsequent redemption of characters in fictional worlds that we ourselves are then redeemed. It’s all very tediously New Testament, I’m afraid.
But the issue is that in many novels I read these days and in the television I watch, there is not much accounting for a moral universe. The characters wander a moral vacuum just kind of doing stuff that makes us laugh and every third episode has some pathos in it. Or the novels of vibey contemporary consciousness where unbathed millennials have sex and sometimes get UTIs and think about capitalism, but there’s no real moral schema there. No moral vector to any of the actions. They’re constellations of acts in the void. Part of that is because, you know, that whole death of God, death of the author, all subjectivity is a universe kind of thing we did after we got sad from global wars. But I kind of don’t know…how redemption works in a decentralized, atomized world.
I guess redemption would look like the world itself? Which is that we live in nested systems of relation that each have their own moral vectors and we move among them at all times and the truth would have to capture some of that dizzying velocity. A moral modernism, kaleidoscopic in the way of Woolf or Joyce or Faulkner, multivalent and swirling. That would be cool to read. But we’d have to acknowledge that morality can exist and does exist. Not as some objective world-foundational thing, but as spheres of influence we move between and among in different phases of our lives and different arenas of our lives. The morality of my childhood is not the morality of my adulthood. The morality of my New York life is not the morality of my Iowa City life. And for a long time, I tried to reconcile these things, trying to find which one was the real one, the true one, and maybe what I need to do is just accept that things shift and change and are contextual, and what is more interesting perhaps is studying how a set of core values change and operate within different sets of moral pressures.
In my own fiction, I don’t think in terms of redemption arcs. There are no redemption arcs in hell. I like to think about moments of grace, and I think of them as these shocking moments of piercing clarity where a character’s situation and circumstance become clear to them and they are able to hold that self-knowledge without recrimination or judgement from themselves or the reader. A brief, glancing moment of wholeness, where they comprehend all they are and have been and will be. Sometimes, it’s just a glimpse, sometimes it’s more than a glimpse, but every character, I try to afford some small shard of grace. Where all judgment is suspended and they float just a little bit. My grandpa used to say, even sinners in hell get thirsty. And I think that thirst is a lot like grace. That no matter how accustomed you are to your circumstances, no matter how inured to it you are, there is a part of you, some human, gentle part, that is capable of feeling. And I think of my moments of grace as letting that human, gentle part of my characters for just a brief instant become the dominant aspect of their nature.
Moments of grace to me are more crucial than redemption arcs because a redemption arc requires a character to move from one phase of being to another. From a moral debt to moral solvency. Repaying something owed. But a moment of grace is just a bolt of clarity where judgement is suspended and they are how they are and that is okay. A moment when you stand by your character and accept them and they accept themselves. It’s not always positive. Sometimes, it’s brutal. Sometimes it’s painful. But I do think it is always beautiful, when a character is just seen and when then they see themselves.
But I do think fiction needs moments of grace perhaps more than it needs redemption, especially if you aren’t going to do the work of building out a moral universe where moral debt is even possible. Especially if you’re writing fiction that forces the reader to import their own moral schema into the novel so that they can make sense of what’s going on.
Maybe it’s because I was raised severely Protestant or whatever.
More than anything though, I do believe that we talk about redemption because Jennifer Weiner made us all feel weird about talking about likability. And maybe likability was always the wrong word for it. What we wanted was not to feel more identified with the characters who annoyed, but to believe that their annoyingness might lead somewhere better. Maybe what we wanted from literature pre-likability politics is what we still want from literature and fiction and film and tv now—to feel that good things might happen to bad, annoying people. So that we might believe, if only for a moment, that those good things could happen to us too.
When we killed God and the author and the narrator, we were left alone in the broad, cold universe. And we all were left looking for some sign from the great randomness of life that those things we hated about ourselves might somehow—through plot, through coincidence, through charisma—be transmuted into good fortune or at the very least, we might come to understand that our own little corner of the universe turned out to be the very center of it. We were left wanting the same old things but suddenly without the tools to make it possible, and so we fashioned new tools of relation and have arrived, via reality television and competition shows, at the very place we began. A well-ordered celestial realm whose actions and fates instruct us in everyday living.
I just think that’s very funny.