If breaking the fourth wall signifies a shattering of the traditional interface between character and audience, Curtis White has not only broken it but also taken a sledgehammer to the remaining three and is now perched, filing his nails, atop the wreckage. While applying dramaturgical terms to fiction may irk you, reader, in this case it’s apt, since White’s newest book, Lacking Character, blurs our conceptualisations of play and novel as discrete entities anyway. In fact, there are not many concepts or conventions it doesn’t blur, de- then reconstruct, and dance in, around and out of with a knowing, showman’s smile. In short, it is a book that knows how to behave itself and chooses not to.
Lacking Character begins with a masked, caped messenger, Percy, pounding at the door of a house in Illinois, demanding to see the Marquis as ‘a matter of life and death’. It transpires that both he and his message have been dispatched from the Outer Hebrides by the Queen of Spells, a well-meaning sorceress who conjures creatures, like Percy, out of ‘flabby cack’. Percy believes he has been ‘falsely accused … of an atrocity’, but it turns out he has merely been sent to request the Marquis’s assistance in signing him up for some vocational courses at college. Negligence on the Marquis’s part and a tendency towards melodrama on Percy’s, however, result in a botched transaction, one that propels Percy into a tech-age America offering an education of a starkly different kind. What’s on the curriculum? Storytelling dogs with jingoistic values, reformed arsonists, cult-like abasement therapies and possible dismemberment by a stray homeopath.
While White’s fun-house mirroring of contemporary America offers few grounds for optimism, the novel is neither misanthropic nor despairing. Rather, it offers up humour and creativity as a means of resistance. Besides its wry self-awareness and snowballing absurdity, Lacking Character’s humour hinges on a playfully unbounded sense of space and time. Percy, throughout his transatlantic ordeal, fits the bill for a kind of Christ figure one moment and a leather-buttocked Pinocchio the next. The ermine-cuffed Marquis spends his time playing Halo on his Xbox with his ‘aristocrat pals’ and smoking hashish, deemed a ‘pantry essential’.
Concerned about Percy’s absence after some months, the Queen of Spells finally decides to cross the Atlantic in pursuit of him. Meanwhile, facing the prospect of homelessness, the Marquis sends his coddled grandson and his sole aide in search of a job and an income stream – ‘Find because, apparently, they are hidden. The jobs, I mean.’ And throughout, White – or his narrator persona – intrudes repeatedly, cycling between states of author, narrator and character to tear the fabric of his own fiction as he goes along.
What results is a self-conscious exploration of the storytelling act, one that’s equal parts witty and exasperating. Symphonic in style and patchwork in form, it’s a satire that by design resists sustained immersion – and frustratingly so. There are sudden refractions in plot and glitches in era and location; keeping up requires a certain athleticism of spirit. With characteristic self-awareness, White anticipates just such a reaction, his sly reflexive digs sparing nothing, least of all the reader. Once inside the chaotic narrative you have two options: to surrender and retreat back, shamefacedly, to warm and motherly convention, or to hang on tight and determine not to take anything, even yourself, too seriously.