I was looking for comfort reads, the mashed potatoes of literacy, and I read a book that had been highly recommended (lotta five star ratings on Amazon) with the caveat being that it was just the story of what happened to this guy, episodic not escalating. And I thought, “Great, a picaro story” and raced right through it.
It wasn’t a picaro story.
A picaro narrative is an episodic story of a rogue’s progress through life. Think Tom Jones, Moll Flanders, Don Quixote, the Murderbot stories taken as one story in five parts. A picaro’s story is not one goal/one conflict, it meanders, following the rogue’s adventures. I thought the important part of that definition was the episodic nature of it, following a character through different spaces and interactions. Turns out the key is “rogue,” as in anti-heroic, iconoclastic, amoral protagonist.
The book I read has a classic beginning–orphaned boy forced to find his way in the world–and it was fun to start with. For one thing, everybody liked this kid and helped him out because they could see how good/smart/honest he was, and that was comforting when the real world is nothing but conflict. He got a very low status job on a spaceship, but it just worked out that he really knew this job because his now-deceased mother had been obsessive about that a particular task, and everybody on the ship loved him because he was the best there ever was at this one thing. Competence porn. Loved it.
Then he helped a friend pass a test he couldn’t pass before, solved the financial problems of several crew members while evoking fond memories in the captain, aced four advancement tests, got a great idea for saving the ship money, researched another way to make the ship’s trips more profitable . . .
I wanted a comfort read, but by three-quarters of the way through, I really wanted a plague to attack this guy, or a bullet, or at least somebody who slapped him. I wanted him to make mistakes and learn from them instead of always doing the right thing at the right time with the right people. I wanted a protagonist who broke the rules and paid the price, had uncharitable thoughts and flaws, and–for the love of god–engaged in CONFLICT.
I wanted a picaro.
It was right about then that I began to entertain thoughts that maybe this guy was a con man, that he was working the ship for an ulterior motive. For one thing, he lied about things. He said he didn’t like his name, it was embarrassing, but every time he introduced himself, he did it quoting the first line of a classic novel. Yeah, that’s flaunting your hame, not being embarrassed by it. (Also why the hell are people still reading an eighteenth century novel a thousand years in the future, so much so that everybody he talks to gets the reference. I’m not sure a lot of people now would get the reference.). Plus he withholds information from people. He doesn’t tell his friend that he’s arranged for an oral test instead of a written even though that would have eased his friend’s anxiety a lot, although this is also the friend that played a trick on him during a safety drill and got him laughed at, so maybe it’s revenge? This guy has to be on the con, right?
Nope. He’s just a really good guy which everybody recognizes and applauds him for.
And that’s bad because without conflict, this guy can’t arc. He’s essentially the same guy at the end that he is at the beginning, albeit with more skills. Mostly, he’s boring.
So I went back and read some Murderbot again. People keep trying to kill him, he gets exasperated with his clients, he makes mistakes, he’s rude, he hates having relationships with people but he keeps getting drawn into them and panicking, he runs away a lot once he’s saved everybody, he’s flawed and funny and cranky and marvelous, a rogue Security Unit with some human parts and a lot more human emotion than he’ll admit. Like the other protagonist, he’s a really good guy, but a good guy who works outside the law, engages in conflict, and has character arc.
He’s a picaro.
I can’t keep reading the Murderbot books over and over, I can practically recite them now, so for heaven’s sake, Martha Wells, write another one.
Because it turns out I need comfort reads that aren’t that comfortable.