Dispatches | September 23, 2010

Last May the Guardian published a list of ten troubled men in literature. A student of mine emailed it to me because in my Coming of Age Literature class we had read about several of the characters who topped the list: Holden Caulfield, Dean Moriarty, “you” in Bright Lights, Big City, and Jake from The Sun Also Rises.

British novelist Tony Parsons, author of the list, defined a troubled man as one who is “working through his problems, and trying to make sense of the world and his place in it.”

The genre of coming-of-age literature is full of both young men and women who are trying to navigate the world and its conflicts. So, of course, Parsons’ selection of troubled men leads me to ask, what about the women?

Of course, I have several favorites: Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar, Emma Bovary, Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. And most recently I’ve been touched by Ree’s story in Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. Her troubles are inflicted on her by her father and extended family, crank dealers who cook up their product deep in the Ozark woods. Her recently arrested father uses their house as collateral to post bond and then disappears. If he doesn’t show up for court the house is lost and Ree, her catatonic mother, and two younger brothers will be tossed out. As she searches the frozen winter landscape for signs of him, dead or alive, she is pulled deeper into a lawless society that lives according to an ancient and brutal code.

Perhaps my favorite troubled woman is Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s millennium series. In this case, skip the books and go straight to the Swedish movies: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire. The role is perfectly cast; Noomi Rapace plays a tattooed, pieced, leather-jacket wearing genius hacker who has been abused by the male authority figures in her life. Now she doesn’t like guys, though through a series of accidents she becomes reluctant friends with middle-aged journalist Mikael Blomkvist.

Lisbeth is one of the most memorable cinematic antiheros since Le Femme Nikita. Though she’s tiny and lithe, you believe she can fight off a series of attackers in the underground, ride a motorcycle, and exact all matters of revenge. She also cleans up well. When she dons a blond wig and Chanel-like suit, she wouldn’t be out of place next to Anna Wintour at Paris’ fashion week.

Those are a few of my favorites. How about one of yours?