Against Love (in Most Circumstances)

Posted: May 23, 2012 in greater writers than me, metal endorsements
Tags: ,

In 1991 Metallica put out the untitled album, the Black Album, you know the one. I want to talk briefly about this one song. You know the song. You should hate the song.

The song is not exactly bad in and of itself. As love songs go, and especially love songs of the time, well, okay. It hits all the points a love song needs to hit. Slow, sensitive. Acoustic guitars. Rock star dudes slowing down to tell you how they feel about you, baby. Commitment is stressed. Spiritual union is implied. The us-against-world mentality is outlined. That world’s inability to understand what we have is obvious. Absolute trust is not built: it exists. Okay,yeah, I’ve heard it before.

The song is special dreck because it was written by what, at the time, was the world’s preeminent thrash metal band. A lot of Metallica-bashers will deny this now. They will say they knew all along or that the band started sucking after Cliff Burton died or Dave Mustaine got kicked out, but, bullshit. Before this album they were top dogs. But with it, they travelled way outside the circle of what thrash bands are meant to do and ought to do. I will not accept apologists’ idea that they were trying something new. That’s bullshit too.

By circle, I mean this: thrash metal is built on aggression and is great because of aggression. It is an excellent vehicle for expressing aggression and related emotions (defiance, outrage, anger, etc.). When your thrash band stops their album to get tender, your thrash band’s gone outside the circle of what is possible for a thrash band to do and still be called a thrash band. If you’re going to write about relationships and still be thrash, you’ve got to do something like this. Stay in the circle.

I am not dissecting the demerits of a twenty-plus-year-old song for kicks. I am writing against the basic idea that if you’re going to be an artist, at some point you have to talk about love, and, if you’re a writer, at some point your novel has to include some kind of love interest. I write today not against all love interests, but against the necessity of a love interest.*

The love interest is sometimes necessary. Often, it is necessary, but for fuck’s sake it is not critical to all literature everywhere, like if I’m going to write a story I better make sure this protagonist is either falling in love or just got dumped or getting over the beloved’s death or whatever. Not all stories require love, especially if you don’t have much to say or do with love or you can’t make a good fucking love interest.

If you must have one, the love interest should be interesting above and beyond his/her role as a love interest. There must be something intrinsically interesting about this man or woman beyond the fact that you can’t live without her because you need somebody in your life because that’s how people feel sometimes and you’re trying to give us a person’s feeling. You end up with the literary equivalent of Metallica’s love subject above. It sells, but it sucks. The love interest, particularly the female love interest, should not be all sweetness and light. If she is batshit psycho, let her be batshit psycho for reasons other than sexual abuse. She should not write poetry. She should be obsessed with politics or something women aren’t noted for obsessing over, even though a percentage of women do obsess over that something. She should be interested in voting for Mitt Romney. There are in fact such women, and your protagonist could, weirdly, fall for her. Okay, I can live with that. You can tell your love interest sucks if the girl doesn’t say or do anything half as interesting as other supporting characters.

This brings me back to Adam Levin’s The Instructions. So I’m up to pg. 732. The book has much to recommend it. Has anyone ever dissected the politics of seventh grade in such beautiful detail? No. Has anyone ever drawn such lovely parallels between kids’ discussions of right and wrong and Talmudic debate? No. Has anyone broken down ADHD in such entertaining, precise detail? No. The possibilities of a ten-year-old potential messiah in Chicago are brilliant and beautiful. The novel’s ambition to cover the experience of that ten-year-old in all its detail is excellent.

Ambition can be pro and con, and if Levin overreached anywhere, it’s in the love department. Eliza June Watermark is supposed to be the last spark for Gurion. She supposedly sends him over the edge with her superhotness. After he meets her, people observe that he’s changed, become more dangerous. She helps on other plot points, like how Gurion and best friend Benji split over Israelite-goy issues (if you want to know why I don’t say “Jew,” read the book).

Homegirl has a definite function, but as a character, she stinks. Every time she comes in, action deflates. While other characters have cool stuff to contribute to conversations and action (Bam Slokum’s speech about being full of nothing, among other things, was a fairly awesome speech on the subject of building and maintaining popularity), June comes around and, meh. In her most recent appearance, she talks about her first kiss with Boystar and seems to reveal, oh, God, that she’s been sexually abused. She has the speech of a stoner trying for poetry: “”It’s so pretty when you’re red, with your black hair and eyes. You’re the end of death.” Earlier, we spent about 30 pages on their first kiss. Meh.

She could be deleted without wrecking the plot and without readers like me wondering about love. First, Gurion’s ten. He might be developed intellectually, but it might be legitimately interesting for him not to be interested in girls and to be puzzled by other kids’ attraction. Gurion could lose it over everything else in the novel and we’d never miss the June spark at all. Instead, the focus could remain on everything that does work in this book: the messianism, the scriptural interpretation, the grade school politics, the apparent superpowers, etc. We’d never miss it.

Really, it’s a matter of drawing the correct circle. I talked about thrash metal, but I stole the idea from Henry James. A writer cannot write about everything in the world in a single novel. He must only appear to do so. To make that appearance work, he must draw a circle around his subject. Don’t let in that extraneous stuff, even if it is part of normal human experience. And if, when you draw your circle, you don’t see any room for that love interest, chuck the love interest. You’ll probably make things easier for yourself. If you draw the correct circle and stay within the circle, your work will be awesome.

Note: The implied comparison of Metallica and Adam Levin is necessary but unfortunate. I will probably read more of Levin’s work. I will never again buy a Metallica album.

*It is true that I am getting married in ten days. I do love the fiancée. She is a necessity.

  1. The Finacee says:

    Not to miss the point, but are there any love stories in literature that you like? Other than The Dying Animal.

    • mpactor says:

      Depends on what you mean by love story. If you mean one in which the primary focus is on man finding woman and living happily ever after, I’m hard pressed to say much beyond Shakespeare’s comedies. But if you mean books in which the primary focus is on the search for love, absolutely. Anna Karenina, Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary are classics. The Passion by Jeanette Winterson also applies. Possession by AS Byatt is fantastic.

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