Pushcart 2014: Deb Olin Unferth, “Likeable” from Noon, 2012

She could see she was becoming a thoroughly unlikable person.

I know what that feels like.

On the surface (you can read the whole thing, all 300+ words of it, online and find out for yourself), this is self-explanatory: It’s true we can get away with more at 20 than we can at 40. Some of that is for good reason: we’re supposed to learn something with experience, and behavior that’s received as “cute” when one is young (“I did the same thing when I was your age” and “Just wait ’til she gets a little older, she’ll change her tune”) has an expiration date. That was the primary impetus behind my decision to leave home at 18: I knew I wasn’t prepared for the world, I knew that living at home was not going to prepare me, and I wanted to get all my mistakes out of the way while they’d still be forgivable. That still numbers among the five best decisions I’ve ever made in my life (the five worst decisions are, however, a lot more interesting).

The other side is implied here as well. Maybe as we get older – get some mileage on us, so to speak – we have a tendency to tire of the bullshit, of the make-nice, and start to gain the confidence to value our own view of the world, as opposed to that of others. We stop taking advice and start giving it, answer more questions than we ask, insist more than we wonder. We start to feel like we’ve earned the right, through hard experience. Assertiveness, particularly when exercised by women, can be seen as unlikeability, and I think the line for women is drawn differently than it is for men. And of course one can move beyond assertiveness, first into judgmental dogmatism, then into aggression.

I’ve always wondered if those who proudly frame their unlikeability in terms of confidence, who describe rudeness as honesty, are just unable or unwilling to learn or use the social skills necessary to walk the line between obsequiosity and offense, to determine which is appropriate (as they both are in different circumstances). As someone whose social skills frequently falter, I can sympathize, but own up to it – don’t claim it’s an asset. The story is, after all, titled “Likeable” rather than “Unlikeable” – is that an assertion? A hope? A contrast – or an expectation?

But keep in mind: this is a fiction piece, not an essay. It’s a character speaking – what if the character is speaking, not as a representation of a person, but as an actual self-aware character? An unlikeable character who, by page 43, finds herself put away on a shelf in favor of more likeable characters?

Roxane Gay had a great article on Buzzfeed about “the importance of unlikeable female protagonists.” I see no reason why a fictional character, male or female, must be likeable; I don’t think in terms of likeability as much as I do of how interested I am in what the character is doing, and those are different things.

I think I’m reaching, because otherwise, in spite of my appreciation for Unferth, I would have little to say about this piece. It’s not that I don’t like it; it’s that I’m struggling to find anything unique about it, a reason it’s been selected. Does that make me unlikeable?

7 responses to “Pushcart 2014: Deb Olin Unferth, “Likeable” from Noon, 2012

  1. I read a whole book by Deb Olin Unferth, Vacation, inspired by the Craft Class of the Writers Studio of New York. The amazing, unearthly thing about her writing was the shifting viewpoints. So I am working on spotting exactly where they shift here.

    I think the piece starts firmly from the character’s mind, then the 2nd paragraph could be from both her ‘s or another’s.

    In the 3rd para ‘And does she sense this?’ is the point where I think the writing is entirely from another’s point of view.

    The last sentence of that 3rd paragraph is so shocking to me, moving to such direct dislike of the woman. ‘..that she will have to be shoved into a hole and left there.’

    There is something about the ‘..until one morning’ which makes me think of a cautionary tale or a modern day fairy tale.

    • Sure, the more the merrier. This was not my finest work (though my belief that I have “finest work” may be unfounded… I’m having quite a bad day in several arenas, it’d be nice to straighten this one out.)

      Now that you’ve given me something to look for, I can see the narration zooming out. It’s never really close to “her”, though; we never see her thoughts, her point of view, but we see her actions in the first paragraph – she’s speaking, or reacting – yet there’s this idea that she fixes herself on being likeable for four seconds, so there is some insight.

      In the second paragraph, it’s more like friends are having a conversation about her, complaining about her. They even consider possibilities – maybe the world has grown worse, but no, it’s her. And now I wonder:Ex just how likeable are these friends of hers? It’s even possible she’s perfectly likeable to some people, just not whoever is narrating here, and they’re assuming everyone sees her the same way. If you want to complain about someone or something, you don’t find a random sampling, you find people who also want to complain.

      The final zoom out in the third paragraph is more thoughtful to me, more analytical of the overall situation. It’s almost an essay structure, making a specific experience more universal. I wonder if the last line is zoomed out to the extreme – almost to God level – and as you say, it’s a cautionary tale – but we are all eventually going to be shoved in a hole and left there. Is this the path of life? We start out cute when we’re babies, and by the time we’re old, everyone’s complaining we’re a pain in the ass.

      The thing that leapt out at me on this more careful read is the use of the word “likely” in “Maybe (likely) she used to resist…” That can’t be there by accident. Yet the words “likely” and “likeable” aren’t close in meaning, really. How interesting to look up the etymology; it seems the meaning is a lot closer than I’d thought:

      c.1300, perhaps from Old Norse likligr “likely,” from likr “like” (see like (adj.)). Old English had cognate geliclic. Meaning “having the appearance of being strong and capable” is from mid-15c., though now mostly confined to American English; according to OED this sense is perhaps influenced by like (v.). Sense of “good-looking” is from late 15c. Meaning “probably” is attested from late 14c., now principally in American English.

      [Bartlett] LIKELY. That may be liked; that may please; handsome. In the United States, as a colloquial term, respectable; worthy of esteem; sensible.–Worcester.

      Hmm. I’m glad you got me to look more closely at this one! I like Unferth; I loved the last story I read by her – “Pet” – and I see I noted “The point of view is all over the place” just as you said, and I included other sources on the narrative analysis. Granted, I drew a blank on this one, but I should’ve tried harder – thanks for helping me out!

  2. This sort of discussion makes me wonder why Schools and Universities want your own work, when a communal work would be so much more fruitful. In our home education we chat around a subject and that’s the whole point, same in ModPo and here. It’s not a 100m race.

    • I think schools (public schools in the US at least) are caught between the conflicting pressures of standardized testing, and cost cutting, resulting in this obsession with easy metrics to prove tax dollars are well-spent. Don’t get me started! Figuring out how to make sure kids are learning what they need to learn is incredibly tricky, and I don’t see any quick, cheap way to do that evaluation. But what we’re doing isn’t really working for anyone but those who don’t have to rely on public schools.

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