Thursday, January 30, 2014

Depressing Books

The Telegraph recently published its list of the Top 15 Most Depressing Books. Scrolling through, I find only two that I've read- Jude the Obscure and Never Let Me Go. And they were both pretty depressing, but not the most depressing I've ever read.

That dubious honor belongs to Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, a book so depressing that I had to go onto Wikipedia to come up with the title, because I repressed it. The story of Lily Bart, literature's ultimate self-saboteur (saboteuse?), it starts of bad and just gets worse and worse. And when you think it can't get worse, it does.  Ethan Frome wasn't a laugh a minute either, but The House of Mirth is just punishingly depressing. It holds you down until you're too beaten to fight anymore. It kicks you in the ribs and then laughs while it kicks you some more.

Literary fiction has produced some recent downers. Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being is pretty bleak although it ends well, but you can't say that for James Scott's The Kept. Rocks fall, everyone dies. Hooray. (James, you're a doll and your book deserves all the success in the world. But man.) Patrick Flanery's Fallen Land spirals down to some very dark places too.

Not surprisingly crime fiction is pretty good at producing depressing books. Massimo Carlotto's Death's Dark Abyss was so depressing I thought I'd never read him again. But then that book just does what it says on the label so it's probably my own fault for reading it. Gene Kerrigan's The Midnight Choir made me want to cry for humanity but I'm sure I'll come back for more.

I like books that shake me up emotionally, and I don't mind depressing books if they're good at being depressing, but looking over my shelves I find that I don't gravitate towards them. Or at least if I do, I discard them and then erase them from my long-term memory, and have to look them up again on Wikipedia. I like some hope. I like some redemption, some possibility of a future for characters I've come to care about. It's a tough act to pull off, to create characters your readers will want to follow till the end of your book only to flagellate them and by extension the reader.

How do you feel about depressing books? Avoid? Seek? Tolerate okay or throw across the room?