Thursday, April 25, 2013

April is the cruelest month - the most depressing books I have ever read (flashback post)

“April is the cruelest month” begins T. S. Eliot’s masterpiece “The Waste Land.” I don’t agree, myself. I always find January, with its post-holiday letdown, to be the most depressing month. September isn’t much better with its blazing weather lingering long after summer has worn out its welcome. But Eliot is my favorite poet and until I can write something as good as “The Waste Land” or “Ash Wednesday” or “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or “Marina” I’ll defer to him.

In honor of the cruelest month I offer the most depressing books I’ve read. And they are all, in their own ways, good books. They aren’t depressing in the “trees died for this” way but in the bleak, brutal beauty of their stories and the empathy they generate for their characters.

1984 by George Orwell
Probably the grand-daddy of excellent-but-depressing books. These days Brave New World is more relevant to our society, but at least in that dystopia most of its inhabitants are having what they think is fun, at times. But 1984’s world is a grim, shabby place where even the Inner Party members lead lives devoid of much in the way of comfort or sensual enjoyment. Combine that with the ruthless efficiency of the brainwashing and the inevitable betrayal and renouncing of humanity, and you’ve got one downer of a book.

The Book of Sorrows by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
Wangerin’s sequel to his popular Christian fable The Book of the Dun Cow is an example of truth in advertising: its very title tells you this is a book brimming with sadness. Mind you, The Book of the Dun Cow wasn’t exactly a rollicking fun time: Rooster Chanticleer and the animals he’s lord of must fight for their lives (and their souls) against a demonic half rooster/half snake beast called Cockatrice and his horde of poisonous snakes; the battle is won by the self-sacrifice of humble dog Mundo Cani. The Book of Sorrows takes up shortly after the battle has been won, but implies the war may be nearly lost. The losses of the battle, particularly of Mundo Cani, weigh heavily on Chanticleer as he descends into depression and paranoia. As a brutal winter takes its toll on the remaining animals, the characters who triumphed over external enemies start to succumb to those within, facing starvation, infertility, suicide, the semi-accidental killing of a mother and child, and more. It’s a beautiful book, though, with marvelous characterization and effective use of both Christian and pagan stories and myths. But very hard going at times.

The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kozinski
Kozinski’s 1965 novel is somewhat overshadowed by its author’s personality and by his claims about the book’s inspiration (once described as largely autobiographical, it was later revealed to be not so autobiographical after all). But despite that and some occasionally clumsy writing/translation, it’s a stark, grim novel that’s more frightening in its depiction of the depths humans can sink to than many horror genre novels. The story follows a nameless child in World War 2 Poland, sent to the country by his parents to escape persecution (it’s implied he’s Jewish, though he’s at times assumed to be a gypsy). When his guardian dies he’s left to wander alone in a countryside that’s populated more or less exclusively by ignorant, savage peasants. Halfway through the book (right after he’s tossed into a cesspool to drown after he accidentally drops a Bible during Mass) he’s so traumatized he’s unable to speak. It ends on a (not entirely convincing) happy note, but the horrors witnessed by the child linger in the reader’s mind, as does the suspicion that this kid is going to end up as one seriously messed-up adult.

The Bridge by John Skipp and Craig Spector
What do you get when you combine no-holds-barred splatterpunk with apocalyptic environmental horror? You get The Bridge. The titular bridge is in a small town called Paradise, and is the favorite dumping ground of the local polluter. At least until the toxic waste becomes this sentient, unstoppable force that mutates everything it contacts, inhabits the minds of every living thing, and takes over the world in a matter of days. What makes the book frightening is that the toxic force doesn’t kill – everything from plants to people just becomes an extension of the force, trapped forever in a kind of living death. What makes the book so depressing is the inevitable doom for everyone, including some very likable people.

The Brave by Gregory McDonald
Fans of McDonald’s lighthearted Fletch series definitely had to reach for the Xanax after reading his 1991 effort The Brave. Young Rafael lives with his family and some other lost souls in a shantytown community in the Southwest. There are no jobs, no government assistance, no money, and almost no food. The primarily Native American populace’s life consists of foraging in the nearby dump for food and for other goods they use to survive. Alcoholism is rampant, even among children, and if the people aren’t shot by the dump’s armed guards they die quickly in accidents or lingeringly from untreated cirrhosis or cancer. So when Rafael is given an offer of $30,000 to be tortured and murdered on camera for a snuff film, he agrees – to give his family and friends the means to escape the shantytown, and to have the chance at a quick (if agonizing) death instead of his miserable existence. And his sacrifice will help his family and friends, because the sort of people who make snuff films would never go back on their promise to give his widow thousands of dollars, and they’d never use a phony contract to bamboozle a naïve, illiterate young man. Would they? The Brave is a very good book but bleak doesn’t begin to describe it – it’s for those who thought Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle just wasn’t grim enough.

Now, I can hear rumblings from the peanut gallery – people asking why on earth I read these in the first place. Well, I don’t really have an answer for that. I’ll blame some of my early reading, particularly Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child, a children’s book that’s grim, almost existential fare. And those Choose Your Own Adventure books – no matter what I did, I always got the “and you were never heard from again” endings. Just lucky, I guess.

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