Sunday, October 15, 2017

Five Books that Left Me Feeling Icky

A well-written novel is one that makes you feel something. But what if that something is discomfort? Disgust? Anxiety? Revulsion? Important books never shy away from tackling difficult subjects: repression, gender roles, crime, deceit, violence, tragedy. Occasionally, however, a book submerges me in such torrent of desolation I feel I'm drowning in its turbid waters.

There have been several books over the years that I literally shoved away when I reached the bottom of the last page. Whether it revealed something uncomfortable about society or some dark place inside my own mind, the book left an icky stain in its wake.

Here are five books that left me with this profound sense of dis-ease.

Gone Girl- Gillian Flynn (2012)
Gillian Flynn's 2012 blockbuster Gone Girl is a perfect example of a novel that left a gray cloud hanging even after it departed. The way Flynn manipulated my emotions to generate a sense of utter helplessness was an incredible feat of writing talent. Gone Girl made me genuinely fear meeting a true psychopath (and I mean a clinical psychopath, as this word is often tossed around incorrectly). But despite the uncomfortable nature of the story, I blasted through its 400+ pages like a meth addict: red-eyed and sleepless, twitching with compulsion when I was forced to put it down. I hated and loved every paragraph.

There is no doubting Flynn's skill. Gone Girl has an engaging narrative structure, riddled with twists and turns. The novel is a vortex that slurps readers into a macabre abyss where the monsters are real and the bottom is too dark to see. This psychological thriller is an exhilarating yet troublesome glimpse into the broken corners of the human mind. How well can you ever truly know a person? If you are married you might find yourself looking sidelong at your spouse as you pour through these pages.

The Handmaid's Tale- Margaret Atwood (1985)
Margaret Atwood's neo-classic The Handmaid's Tale unfolds the story of a dystopian society where women are subjugated by a ruthless patriarchy. It seems more relevant today than ever. As with Gone Girl, I battled a sense of helplessness throughout, which I suppose means Atwood succeeded in rendering a high degree of empathy for the main character. The Handmaid's Tale is disgusting, frightening, and its conclusion left me without a sense of true resolve to unwind the ugly tension that built as the story progressed.

Stylistically, the writing is brilliant. Atwood infuses literary qualities that have stymied critics from applying the damming "sci-fi" label. Instead, The Handmaid's Tale toes the line between genre and literary fiction, winning the 1986 Nebula Award and hitting the shortlist for the Booker Prize, one of the most coveted writing awards in the English language. When I reached the final pages, however, I found it hard to recommend The Handmaid's Tale to friends, instead I was mostly just glad it was over.

The Circle- Dave Eggers (2013)
Dave Eggers is a literary hero of mine and when I saw a book of his was being adapted into a film starring Tom Hanks and Hermoine (oh, I mean Emma Watson) I was intrigued. What I discovered, however, was a story that evoked many of the same discomforts I already possessed about the rapidly expanding role of social media in society. The Circle exists in a highly uncomfortable near-future dystopia that clearly reveals how compulsory participation in social media can devolve to a point where the digital record of an experience becomes more important than the experience itself. The sacred privacy we once cherished is now increasingly subjected to full public syndication.

Critics often compared this novel to Fahrenheit 451 or 1984 and for good reason. The Circle updates these classic stories but still echoes a familiar discomfort. The real-life rate in which technology and social media avenues like Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube are expanding lends chilling verisimilitude to the events in The Circle. I resent the way social media has altered the structure of friendship. Too often I feel compelled to make my rounds through Facebook just to keep my friends from accusing me of neglect. The modern invent of drones and compact cameras like GoPros have allowed your digital self to be broadcast from anywhere on the planet, from hundreds of fathoms beneath the surface of the ocean to the icy summit of Mt. Everest. No place is sacred. Every experience must be shared. The Circle left me queasy, wondering how far society will take this need to divulge even the most mundane moments of everyday life.

The Road- Cormac McCarthy (2006)
For those who haven't experienced a Cormac McCarthy novel, it is difficult to articulate the strangeness prevalent in every one. McCarthy oscillates between tongue-baffling run-on sentences to understated fragments like diminutive brush strokes. He drops mystifying vocabulary with casual elegance and renders impressionistic scenes that read like a Renoir painting. His novels are often suffused in explicit violence, hyper-masculinity and suffocating darkness that plumb the grim corners of the human condition. He is brilliant, yet I lurch between admiration and profound disgust for his work.

The Road is often considered McCarthy's magnum opus. It was the novel for which he won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize. The Road is set in the ashy, despairing aftermath of an apocalypse, the nature of which the reader never learns. A man and his son, who aren't given names, plod through this tragic landscape dodging cannibals, thieves, and the burden of their own grief. Like Gone Girl I became gruesomely addicted to The Road. I didn't want to eat or sleep. As I was immersed in McCarthy's sordid world, I grew paranoid of the people around me, wondering which might try to rob me or perhaps make a meal of my meaty limbs. When it was over, I was convinced Earth was thoroughly doomed. Should we ever come to such a place as found in The Road, I think I'd prefer to swan dive off Niagara Falls than linger like a revenant who hasn't quite realized the world and everything in it has died. To mine for something positive, I suppose The Road depicts man's perseverance in the face of the direst of circumstances. There is no doubt The Road is brilliant. Just don't expect a warm, cheery tale full of hope.

The Talented Mr. Ripley- Patricia Highsmith (1955)
It comes as no surprise that when Gone Girl came out, the New York Times Book Review labeled Gillian Flynn as a modern incarnation of Patricia Highsmith. The Talented Mr. Ripley is a psychological thriller in the same vein, one that gives you a glimpse into the paranoid, thoroughly diseased mind of a master at manipulation. As the main character's crimes spiral out of control, I, too, was drawn deeper and deeper into his storm. Every solution he forges leads to five more problems. But Tom Ripley is indeed talented, even if labeling his skill as "misapplied" is the understatement of the morning.

Deciding whether to empathize or deplore him was perhaps the main tension of the novel for me. By the time I was halfway deep I was thoroughly engaged, pulling for his deceptions and manipulations to succeed and terrified his incredible ruse would come to screeching and spectacular end. I found myself making excuses for him: he was forced into a chain of events beyond his control. He never meant for it to go so far. He was a train without breaks barreling on a downhill track. Deep down he really had good intentions. Ultimately, however, I was disgusted with myself for ever siding with him. What did that reveal about me? Did that mean that with the exact wrong circumstances I, too, could end up so terribly derailed? When the book was over I tossed it away and let the detritus of my life swallow it into its depths, hopefully forever. 

Final Thoughts

What is interesting about these novels, is that every single one of them were "page turners" for me, books I read while I ate, bathed, and brushed my teeth. I awoke from sleep eager to pick back up where I'd left off at 2 a.m. the night before. Though none of them left me blushing with praise, and I might even have said I hated some of them, they have all stuck with me through the years. Perhaps there is something about a novel like this, one that thrusts you so far out of your comfort zone you need a map to get back, that has a uniquely powerful effect on a reader. A primary goal for an author is to elicit a reaction. The stronger this reaction, it could be argued, the more effective the writing.

There are few responses as a reader more memorable and more powerful than discomfort, anguish and desolation.

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  1. Fascinating post. I'm not a great fan of books that leave me with such negative emotions. There's enough suck in real life that I prefer to get something more noble and uplifting from my literature, but at the same time I can't deny how brilliant some depressing books are. Is it legitimate to think a book is excellent and not want to read it?

    1. "Is it legitimate to think a book is excellent and not want to read it?" Absolutely. That pretty much sums up my thesis on all of these books. All excellent writing. All kind of terrible emotionally.