America loves the Anti-Hero

8 Mar

In an early episode of J. J. Abrams’s Alias, a CIA psychoanalyst profiles Jennifer Garner’s character, Sydney Bristow.  Seated in a dark, cell-like room with electrodes secured to her forehead, Sydney is nevertheless completely self-possessed—as one of this most covert branch of the CIA’s top agents, our protagonist never flinches and answers every question with equanimity.  And because she’s entirely honorable, even if a spy, Sydney answers “No” to one of the shrink’s more interesting questions:

Have you ever been so enamored of a crook or criminal’s cleverness that you hoped he would escape the law?

Sydney Bristow may have answered in the negative in 2001, but not so America today.  Some of the most popular shows on television in 2010 feature figures who Sydney certainly wouldn’t spare an hour on a Tuesday night for: anti-heroes.

But if the villains we hate to love are televised now, there’s certainly literary precedent: Mervyn Peake’s Steerpike, Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff, Othello’s Iago, along with Prometheus, Icarus, Lucifer (or is that just me? But honestly—bringing an army of rebel angels against God is kind of awesome), and others.

I could write a research paper on anti-heroes such as Steerpike (in fact, I did in an American Literature course gone awry), but one of the best examples I’ve read recently can be found in George S. Schuyler’s satire Black No More.

The back-cover plot summary says it best:

Black No More is the story of a dapper black rogue of an insurance man who, through a scientific transformation process, becomes Matthew Fisher, a white man.  Matt dreams up a scam that allows him to become the leader of the Knights of Nordica, a white supremacist group, as well as to marry the white woman who rejected him when he was black.  Black No More is a hysterical exploration of race and its self-serving definitions.  If you can’t beat them, turn into them.

In Black No More, George Schuyler creates in Max Disher (alias Matthew Fisher) a character who doesn’t comfortably fit in either the protagonist or antagonist camp.  From his first appearance in the novel, Max’s moral rectitude is ambiguous: “Max was tall, dapper and smooth coffee-brown.  His Negroid features had a slightly satanic cast and there was an insolent nonchalance about his carriage” (3).

But this emissary of the Lord of Darkness truly comes into his own as the white supremacist demagogue Matthew Fisher.  In the course of ten pages, Matthew hardly makes a move without employing his “usual ironic expression”: he “smiled sardonically,” “jeered” at his friend Bunny Brown, “retorted sarcastically” to the unfortunate victims of his labor union schemes, “enjoyed their confusion,” “pretended to be sympathetic” to the union leaders he ruins, and surveys his white rabble with “cynical humor mixed with disgust” (84-95).  He employs the loyal Bunny to burn the Givens’s old family home—unexpectedly, but certainly fortuitously, causing wife Helen to miscarry—and, at the height of his reign as a “devil of ambition” (151), calmly weighs the pros and cons of the serial murder of his future children.

Sharp, supremely manipulative, and hungry for power, Matthew Fisher is hardly an admirable man.  Yet his expert political maneuvering remains compelling—and hysterical in a cringe-inducing way as he begins to speak of the Knights of Nordica as “my side” (86) and insist that “What we want is a status quo” (87).

Today, the morally suspect genius is probably even more in favor than during Matthew Fisher’s debut in 1931.

FOX’s House, M.D., for example, follows brilliant doctor Gregory House as he sidesteps legal and ethical guidelines in the pursuit of diagnosing complicated and unbelievably rare (really, five seasons in it’s getting harder to believe so many people in New Jersey have anthrax and eastern equine encephalitis) diseases.  Of course, House cares little for the feelings of either his patients or staff, whose fates he twists around his flame-painted walking cane.  As friend and conscience James Wilson comments in a recent episode: “You are the manipulative, yet benevolent, puppet-master.”

ABC’s cult hit Lost, as well, features its share of evil geniuses—most prominent among them the brilliant, slightly sociopathic, Benjamin Linus.  His own hired hit man possibly kills less characters on screen than Ben, among them (spoiler alert):

Two of Widmore’s Tuareg agents in the Sahara (shot), the demigod Jacob (stabbed), rival John Locke (shot, then strangled after Locke’s resurrection), and hundreds of Island hippies including his father (poison gas).  And those just the ones he dispatches personally.

As for satanic features, it’s doubtful any actor in the world today could equal Michael Emerson’s shiver-inducing stare or sinister tenor.  In a recent interview with Jimmy Fallon, Emerson was asked to read the poem “Little Boy Blue,” quote, “as creepy as you can”—the result being this:

(I think I can safely assume that you’re with me on the fact that Ben Linus killed the boy who looks after the sheep and buried him under the haystack.  Right?)

The anti-hero is certainly popular, as skyrocketing ratings for shows like House and Lost prove, but neither Gregory House nor Benjamin Linus in all their manipulative glory can match Matthew Fisher for sheer absurdity.  House and Lost have their satirical elements—Lost, after all, is a televised debate over faith and science with characters named John Locke, David Hume, Charlotte Staples (read C. S.) Lewis, and a mother-son Hawking-Faraday pair)—but neither are as focused as Black No More.

Matthew Fisher’s anti-heroic qualities are heightened by his context: a formerly-black insurance salesman running a white-supremacist organization and, ultimately, a presidential campaign. The incongruity is shocking enough—the back-cover plot summary in itself is hilarious.  Matthew’s genius might make him an anti-hero, but it’s this context that makes the reader shriek.

Black No More is a short, far from sweet, and absolutely successful satire.  Four stars.


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