Awhile back, I came down on Janna Levin’s A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines for the contradictions in Alan Turing, an autistic character. After spending no small amount of ink in convincing us that the autism renders Turing oddly literal, she suddenly has him writing letters that indulge in lyricism. That is, if I may quote myself, Turing’s voice is suddenly “thick with metaphors, similes, and double-voiced allusions… I can’t help but suspect that Levin interjects such metaphors and similes in Turing’s mouth because she herself likes the sound of them, ultimately choosing her ‘little darlings’ over her character.”
Which makes Levin’s book an interesting contrast to Leonard Gardner’s Fat City—a book that still excites me every time I page through it, though I first read it half a year ago. Gardner’s book thrives on contradictions. His characters say what they don’t mean, hope for what they don’t want, and act in ways that hurt themselves and those that they attempt, ever so slightly, to love. And the novel comes together splendidly.
Why does contradiction in Gardner’s characters succeed, while it does not in Levin’s book?
The number one reason: Gardner is consistent. Contradiction is replete in the setting of Stockton; it is evident in the peripheral characters, in the boxing ring, in the gym and on the farm fields that flourish with fruit and money-starved laborers. And it is certainly a constant in the skins of the two boxers whose parallel stories form the crux of the story.
The permeation of contradiction in Fat City’s world is apparent when Tully and Ernie meet. Just a couple pages into chapter one, contradiction is already brimming in their individual personalities, in their interaction, and in their setting. Ernie is the one referred to as the ‘boy’:
"There was no one else in the room. Tully swung his arms, rolled his neck, squatted, and rose in alarm at a loud pop in his knee, conscious all the while of the boy’s stillness. After violent activity at the bag, he now sat motionless on the bench, looking at the wall. It was the attitude of one wishing to repel attention, so, perversely, Tully invited him to box, though he himself had come here only to punch the bag.
"The boy rose then, quickly and gloomily. ‘You a pro?’
In this brief passage, I spot no less than seven contradictions. And so goes the pattern in Fat City. It is ultimately the many manifestations of contradiction that make the oppositional impulses in Gardner’s characters more convincing than Levin’s characters. While Levin’s autistic character suddenly starts scribbling poetic letters, it comes as a shock—a cheat—because readers are unprepared for it. With no other clear justification, I’m inclined to attribute it to author error. But when Tully yearns for Oma in Fat City–though he barely knows her and was actually repelled by her before he abandoned her—Gardner has equipped us to understand that this contradiction is the natural way of things, for this man in this time and place.
Dialogue is one of Gardner’s prime mediums for contradiction. In long transcribed sections, characters say what they don’t mean, convince themselves of their own twisted logic, and, yes, directly contradict what they previously said or did. But rather than feeling confusing or sloppy, the contradictions in Gardner’s dialogue is affirmed by the nature of coming from an omniscient narrator that we have no reason to believe is unreliable. The contradictions are just plain fact. While Turing’s letters in Madman are also ‘transcribed,’ its contradictions are not prepared for in the previous 180 pages, told in a more subjective first-person, nor are they in any way developed in the ensuing text. It’s left hanging. It is out of character.
And again, it comes down to consistency. A character in Fat City that has a tendency to expose his contradictions in his talk does so again and again, and in the same ways. It becomes a recognizable signifier.
Consider Ernie. In chapter six, he attempts to mollify Faye and ultimately seduce her by offering her a litany of lines that aren’t true and often oppose his gut instinct.
"I guess I’m in love," he answered, and slumped lower in fear of what he had said. Had he committed himself for nothing, or had he said the one thing he should have said all along?…
"…Will you call me tomorrow?" Faye asked on the way back to town.
‘"Because I want to talk to you."
Feeling the obligations already beginning, he agreed.
Ernie’s palliatives, motivated by his timidity and his ulterior motives, contradict his truth. The very same behavior is evident in chapter twenty-four, when he hitchhikes back to Stockton after a bout. He gets in a car with two women, who, he realizes, might not like him very much. They talk distastefully about ‘tough guys.’
Ernie listened to this exchange with misgivings and decided he would not mention his bout. When asked what he was doing in Utah he answered: ‘Business venture.’
Ernie hopes to not be turned out of the car. This excerpt reveals how he, once more, contradicts his truth due to ulterior motives and timidity. He is very much himself, we understand.
Notably, this hitchhiking scene is the only time in the novel where we see him interact with women that aren’t Faye.
So when does contradiction come across as an accurate rendering of a complex human being? When it’s consistent in both the character and landscape, when it’s conveyed in a variety or ways (dialogue, actions, thoughts, etc.), when the contradiction isn’t haphazard but reveals, in its dissonance, the character’s true nature to the reader. When it’s not left hanging in the middle of nowhere.
But don't just listen to me: check out Denis Johnson's appraisal of Fat City at Salon (hint: he likes it too).