What Do We Owe the Fictional Dead?

The Privilege of Protagonists

One of the best books I read in 2015 was The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud. It’s an Algerian writer’s response to Albert Camus’s The Stranger—especially to the way Camus’s protagonist thoughtlessly shoots an Algerian man at the midpoint of that book, and nobody—not the shooter, not the author, not subsequent generations of readers and literary critics—stops to consider the humanity of that dead, fictional Algerian.

In Daoud’s novel, the idea that Camus treated the dead Algerian unjustly is practically a foregone conclusion, especially since the French have a history of abusing Algerians. But this is not a type of injustice that we typically think about. The Meursault Investigation accuses an author of abusing his own character. It turns a fictional death into a real-world injustice. That’s rather astounding. And it has big implications for storytelling in general.

If Daoud’s accusation is true, then what about police procedurals on TV, with all those beautiful young women who lie on autopsy tables and never speak? Are writers being unfair when they invent a helpless character simply to kill her off? Do fictional characters deserve to mean something as individuals? The Meursault Investigation suggests that being a protagonist is a form of political privilege, and being roadkill is a form of political violence.

And if that’s true, then what about action movies with high body counts? Think of Star Trek Into Darkness, for example. Near the end of the film, a massive Federation warship crashes to earth, toppling skyscrapers as it plows into a bustling city. A conservative estimate would be that many thousands of people are killed in a few seconds. But the film barely notices. We continue to watch a handful of protagonists get into a fistfight. As the film ends, someone gives a speech about the high cost of the battle, but it’s not clear if we’re talking about the corpses in the street or the cuts and bruises on our heroes. In a matter of seconds, the film invented thousands of human beings, killed them, and looked the other way.

Star Trek Into Darkness crash

What do we owe the fictional dead? Do we commit an injustice in the real world when we throw away human lives in a story? How many people in those skyscrapers were Algerian?

I’m not asking these questions rhetorically. The Meursault Investigation is fucking with my head. Will someone tell me what to think about this?

Brian Hurley is Books Editor at The Rumpus and Founder of Fiction Advocate.

1 Comment

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One Response to What Do We Owe the Fictional Dead?

  1. Never thought about it that way …

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