The Lost Redemption Arc

Contemporary literature seems largely uninterested in moral transformation

Photo taken in Berlin, Germany
Reinhard Krull / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images
Kate Shannon Jenkins

The redemption arc, in clumsy hands, becomes cheesy and unbelievable, offending good taste more often than not. Granted. But literature has, in the past, found ways to handle this sort of plot delicately, and to great effect. After all, the question of how a person changes ought to absolutely possess a novelist – as a matter of philosophical inquiry, but also as a representation of a real phenomenon that can and sometimes even does happen. Ideas about redemption motivated Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; degradation and disgrace – another form of moral transformation that might be understood as the redemption arc’s darker twin – were magnificently explored through the Shakespearean tragedies, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, even Proust’s humiliated M. Swann.

The American cultural imagination in particular has always wanted to believe in personal transformation — self-determination is sort of our whole schtick — and during our post-#MeToo, post-Trump moment, when the culture is very busy debating the eventual fate of the “canceled,” the dearth of transformation narratives in contemporary ideas fiction is striking. Possibly writers believe such stories juvenile, unsophisticated, or moralistic, despite classic evidence to the contrary. Or else they fear correct politics now preclude second chances, at least to perpetrators of ideological crimes. Anyhow, there are costs to this sort of affected cynicism. Good literature does not require character transformation, of course, but the reader’s belief in this potential resolution — a barely perceptible slide on a grand scale of moral possibility, if not the dramatic relinquishing/embracing of evil we’ve come to expect from Hollywood — is often what keeps us reading. To watch a character struggle toward and fail to achieve some desired change is among the most heartbreaking experiences literature can impart.

Nada Alic’s darkly funny debut story collection Bad Thoughts is a punishing experience for this very reason. Her characters, universally desperate for change, pursue doomed plans for self-betterment with an almost pathological belief in fresh starts. Their fetish for the future can involve delusions about professional breakthroughs or inner peace or getting up the motivation to hang a towel bar, but just as often skews moral. They are penitent about “little wrongs left unresolved and compounded over time that now seemed unforgivable” or worry that because they ate their twin in utero they must be an “unlovable monster.” They admit they don’t like themselves; they are afflicted by mysterious rashes that no one else can see. They vow to make changes — in some poorly defined future, they will do “something important, probably for others,” and they will “care about social welfare and the environment.” Something grander awaits them, because all that striving to be good will pay off.

Alic’s collection seems like one potential answer to a widely acknowledged problem: what Lauren Oyler called “the self-conscious drama of morality in contemporary fiction,” in which “self-development is just a matter of figuring out your own essential goodness or badness.” Oyler and other critics have identified a moral neurosis evident in the works of writers such as Sally Rooney, Ben Lerner, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, which seems to stem from an anxiety that the characters’ moral failures could implicate their creators. As Larissa Pham, among others, has noted, this is because readers and critics too often do treat books like a find-a-word puzzle for problematic content, caring nothing for literature’s expansiveness but instead seeking to corral it toward a narrow allegorical righteousness. In his Substack, Brandon Taylor writes of the insidious psychoanalysis that writers are now subject to: a “reverse engineering and geolocation of various hurts and harms in the psychology of the writer.” He calls this a “long war against the idea of fiction itself” intended to “unmask the author and their deceptions.” Because there’s been a gradual blurring of the lines between fiction and nonfiction — a trend represented by the essay boom and the autofiction boom and underpinned by the political belief that writers should only create from direct lived experience — some readers seem to genuinely confuse the characters’ moral offenses for the authors’.

But I am less interested here in the neurosis as in the idea that goodness and badness are, indeed, essential. That these are qualities to be revealed, rather than worked toward or against. This sense of moral stagnation can neuter the internality of the characters, obscuring not just their weaknesses, resentments, prejudices (or lack thereof), but also their willingness to confront these things, their desire to be relieved of them, their fantasies of something different.

Alic, by contrast, likes to play around with cultural obsessions about privilege, guilt, and morality, if only to mock them. In her story “My New Life,” a guilt-ridden, self-loathing, probably depressed woman is tortured by her petty moral failures — dreams in which she lets her husband roast to death in the sun; compulsive thoughts about touching strange men’s penises in public without consent; fantasies about setting her house on fire. She finds relief only in a new friend who holds unapologetically bad opinions about feminism, lies about being sexually abused, and cheats on her husband with a teenager in a parking lot “just to see.” She’s released from her shame when she concludes that, “At our core, everyone is rotten. Some are worse than others, of course. But we are all animals, guided by impulses that have been muzzled by morality — our true selves forced to recede into the subconscious, which causes cancer. Mona sent me a TED Talk about it once.”

The protagonist of another story, “Earth to Lydia,” has gone too far down the path toward enlightenment and must be reeled back in with a kind of rehab for those recovering from “ego annihilation.” This involves re-training themselves to be selfish, shallow, aggressive, and greedy through “a combination of exposure therapy, role play, and aerobic workouts.” When the instructor convinces the group they are all about to die, hoping to shock them into a realization about the thing that is most important to them, Lydia discovers that perhaps that thing is doughnuts.

In the last several years of contemporary literature, there has existed alongside the relentlessly good character a spicier alternative: the relentlessly bad character. Oyler noted this phenomenon in reference to Ottessa Moshfegh, whose protagonist in My Year of Rest and Relaxation “seems to be taunting the reader with her awareness of her own badness.” Moshfegh is not the only writer employing this provocative strategy; there’s been a recent phenomenon of female writers (Halle Butler, Alissa Nutting, Olivia Laing, Chelsea Summers) writing exaggeratedly repellent antiheroines. It’s a canny strategy: only an idiot would equate them with their creators. The author thus has the freedom to write without calling their own biography and morality into question. During a time when writers are so often questioned about the value of contributing one more book from a privileged perspective, perhaps a clever way around struggling to defend your character is to create one who is entirely indefensible. I was amused by the ways Oyler herself chose to navigate our hostile critical environment with her debut novel Fake Accounts: Oyler’s protagonist can be fairly called despicable, self-absorbed, maybe even sociopathic, but she acknowledges as much in addresses to the reader. (What really made me laugh was Oyler killing off the protagonist’s boyfriend, shortly after she discovers that he is running a popular conspiracy-theory Instagram account, as if the author were winking and saying, “Well, what else can I do with this guy?”)

An intimacy with a character’s “bad thoughts” can be thrilling. Who among us has never, in a hurried moment, pretended not to see someone begging for change? Who has not had catty, ungenerous thoughts about a close friend? Who has not experienced wildly unmerited self-pity? But the danger to relentlessly bad characters is that, as with relentlessly good characters, they have nowhere else to believably go, and so one element of the reader’s sense of anticipation is removed. Among a certain class of trendy intellectual novels more interested in ideas than in plot per se — a class of novels that might, in other eras, have been especially invested in provoking and in challenging our assumptions about character – there is instead stagnation. Our Ben Lerners, Sally Rooneys, Ottessa Moshfeghs, and Lauren Oylers — stunningly talented, all — seem unmotivated to explore either redemption or disgrace.

Rather than questions about transformation, what we do get plenty of (though not from the aforementioned authors) are tidy answers as to why characters are the way they are. This is often the function of the “trauma plot,” as Parul Sehgal recently argued. Alternatively, authors may, as in what Marco Roth calls the “neuronovel,” follow psychiatrists’ lead by abandoning Freudian explanations for behavior and instead relying on neuroscience, in effect medicalizing selfhood through diagnoses such as Tourette’s or autism. What seems to bother these critics is the unsettling feeling that authors have too often created an inescapable destiny for their characters. Sehgal writes that, “Unlike the marriage plot, the trauma plot does not direct our curiosity toward the future (Will they or won’t they?) but back into the past (What happened to her?).” In other words, revelations about the past stand in for skillful plot development. The best realism demonstrates both the ways that individual characters are acted upon by systems and history and the ways that these characters capitulate or resist, successfully or unsuccessfully. Experiences and identities are merely background, setting, context; though our choices are surely influenced by these factors, it is the choices themselves that create both plot and character, which is to say, the pith of the novel. Contemporary writers may very well be overly fixated on the agency-annihilating experience of living in the late capitalist era (hence the abundant hand-wringing), or of intergenerational trauma.

To be sure, the feeling of powerlessness is widespread and legitimate. Patricia Lockwood depicted this experience in her novel No One Is Talking About This via her Twitter-addicted protagonist, who is disturbed by her life in “the portal” and yet terrified of becoming irrelevant. Then, a slowly unfolding and decidedly offline family tragedy pulls her away from the Internet long enough to gain some perspective. It’s one of the rare contemporary books that concerns itself with redemption; after a radical shift in priorities, the character reclaims her life, connects with the world’s beauty, and perhaps even finds some reprieve from online righteousness. The ultimate redemption, in our era.

I don’t imagine it’s coincidental that Jonathan Franzen also retreated from the Internet Age with his latest, Crossroads, a book set in the 1970s that can be fairly understood as being about redemption. The reader is invited into each character’s most private negotiations as they strive to balance religious and political convictions, personal obligations, and inconvenient demands of the heart. Characters subscribe to dated ideas about goodness; they understand morality not as conventional wisdom to be conformed to, but as a difficult process of searching for one’s own standards. They are also, notably, at least as concerned with the intimate sphere as the sociopolitical sphere. If the book had been set in a contemporary context, I imagine the characters would have been too concerned with online posturing to worry about how their interpersonal conduct reflected on their goodness, and the internet, with its perfect memory, would have uncovered their moral imperfections, anyway.

Redemption does not and cannot happen online. We love to critique and interpret online apologia, dissecting the texts for evidence of their sincerity. But I maintain that redemption is a lonely, internal process of “getting right with God,” of wrestling in the dark with the worst parts of oneself. It is suspect if performed, and the intimacy of the struggle makes it among the most fertile and timeless subjects for literature. Though we have nearly abandoned the social novel in favor of claustrophobic first-person accounts of ordinary lives, few are taking the greatest possible advantage of the form’s relentless interiority.

To redeem oneself — or alternately, to fall from grace — means to work against one’s presumptive destiny. That’s what makes it interesting. So much of character is fundamentally inexplicable, unaccounted for by the facts of our identities. We are born as particular people, no one can say why, and we respond to all the inputs of our histories as only we could have. I once took a workshop with a writing teacher who needed me to provide a reason for why the protagonist in my novel was so obsessed with the aesthetic of a particular photographer. She wanted something Freudian: my character’s dead beloved grandmother had painted with the same color palette, or something. I refused. I had constructed a fully fledged character, complete with mysterious, unknowable eccentricities, and then I had subjected her to pressures both historical and contemporary, personal and political, and then she had gotten away from me and made some choices of her own. That’s how it’s supposed to work. That’s how it does work. Maybe some of my character’s choices were right and some of her choices were wrong. The point is that they felt true — not explicable, and not correct.

In Nada Alic’s stories, little ever changes — but then, that’s what makes them comic and absurd. There is always the shimmering promise of change on the horizon, the sense that if only we could peer beyond the timeline of the story, maybe something really would be different. I’d like to interpret the book itself as the shimmering promise of change on the literary horizon, though I don’t dare to dream. The threat that determinism poses to literature is a terminal stagnation. I am, of course, not demanding that all stories should end in marriage or in death; I am only expressing my dedication to the aesthetics of possibility.

Kate Shannon Jenkins is a journalist/essayist/critic. She has received fellowships at Millay Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, and Bread Loaf. Her work has appeared in publications such as the New Yorker online, the Believer, the Atlantic, Guernica, Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, and others.