In Defense Of Minor Characters
So Fuck You, Allen Enright
We have seen what’s on the road. We’ve seen the drug hazed, beautiful rot that followed a generation of lost boys, straight out of Peter Pan, as they searched a postwar concealer-soaked country for an example–or even just an explanation–of masculinity and what it means to be a man. We’ve seen this trauma, but it would be foolish and a tad bit pig-headed to think that the trauma of the lost boys was the only one out there. Minor Characters is not only important, but it’s essential, because it shows us the generation of lost girls. The girls under glass and in the bell jar.
In writing her own story, Joyce Johnson tells the stories of those who were close to her mostly, but she also takes on the weight of telling the lost stories of the women made faceless by their time. Some women she never even met, and would have otherwise been lost in "so-and-so’s wife" for the rest of eternity, are given their names back as their stories are told.
In his cynical and incredibly unfair review of the novel, Allen Enright proves that he missed the point entirely when he says “There is, as far as I can tell, no point to the memoir, other than the rather obvious one that the Beat movement was an extraordinarily self-destructive gang of outcasts fully committed to drinking themselves to death. We knew that already. So, why do we need Minor Characters?”
We need Minor Characters because the novel proves that there was so much more to these people than that. The novel, in and of itself, shows that while they may have been outcasts to the society, they certainly weren’t alone. They were people who, while lost and suffering in a way those of their time couldn’t seem to accept or understand, loved one another deeply. Not only this easily given "love" mentioned in text multiple times throughout both Minor Characters and On the Road, but you can feel it in how tenderly Johnson tells her stories.
These people–these women–who lost their brilliant minds to drugs, lost their morals in jealousy, or simply lost themselves in a deep unquenchable desire for love, aren’t the nameless husks you pass in male beat novels like On the Road. They’re hurting, complex people, that Johnson treats with compassion and respect as she both loves and worries herself to death over them. Her feelings to them are laid bare, without trying to hide a thing, which is why I think she starts so many of their introductions with their deaths. She loved them, these lost people, and now that they’re gone she refused to let them stay lost.
These people weren’t just a nameless “extraordinarily self-destructive gang of outcasts fully committed to drinking themselves to death.” Not to her. They were real people who lived and died looking for something the world around them couldn’t give. They were children who grew into adults without knowing what that meant. Men on a hunt for masculinity and women whose womanhood was dangerous in a way no one would speak of.
They were her friends. They were the people she loved, and they were dead or dying as she wrote this. They were the people who help build her into the woman she became, as their stories threaded in and out of hers, and Minor Characters is in many ways a shout to the world that they all existed. That they were alive, and that they were more than an unfair judgement meant to be swept under the rug and forgotten about.