Ugly Fiction

Holy depressing books, Batman: The Silent Wife

The Silent Wife
by A.S.A. Harrison

Third and last in our series of fiction books I read, three in a row, that kicked me in the gut.

Today's book is A.S.A. Harrison's novel The Silent Wife, and I'm telling you, if you haven't yet read Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl (or even if you have), kick that one to the curb and read this one instead. In all fairness, I think Gone Girl was meant to be just a thriller, whereas this one is a thriller with a bit more literary style behind it. This is how it begins:

"At forty-five, Jodi still sees herself as a young woman. She does not have her eye on the future but lives very much in the moment, keeping her focus on the everyday. She assumes, without having thought about it, that things will go on indefinitely in their imperfect yet entirely acceptable way. In other words, she is deeply unaware that her life is now peaking, that her youthful resilience--which her twenty-year marriage to Todd Gilbert has been slowly eroding--is approaching a final stage of disintegration, that her notions about who she is and how she ought to conduct herself are far less stable than she supposes, given that a few short months are all it will take to make a killer out of her." (pp. 3-4.)

Now, that makes you think this is going to be a straight-up thriller. But it's not. And in their own "imperfect yet entirely acceptable way" (I love that phrase), the main characters here are both somewhat sympathetic and likable.* For a long time the story just moves along, making you think it is one thing (quite skillfully), but the middle, there's a couple of sucker punches that I was completely not expecting. Maybe you will--there are hints throughout the book. But I did not, and the punches were very sad ones.

I think my one-sentence review to Mr. CR was, "this book is horrifying--in a good way." And that sort of sums up how I felt about all three of these depressing books. They made me think; I thought they were good books; but can I, in all conscience, actually RECOMMEND them to others to read? I just don't know. What do you do when you want to suggest scary or depressing books to others?

*Unlike in Gone Girl, where I found the husband and wife both to be completely uninteresting, unlikable people. Which hampered my caring about them, or the story, in any way whatsoever.

Holy depressing books, Batman: The Chocolate War

Have you read this thing?

Okay, Robert Cormier's classic YA novel The Chocolate War was published before I was born. (God, it's getting rare to be able to say that about a book.) It's often listed on lists of classic books for teens, especially for teen boys, and it's still one of the most challenged books in libraries (it's number 3 on the list of top 100 banned books for 2000-2009). Because I'd heard of it so often, I think I read it somewhere in my mid- or late twenties, and I remembered that I found it interesting...

...but what I didn't remember is this book's ending.

This is all I'm going to say.

The plot is not complicated. Jerry Renault, who attends a private Catholic high school, is singled out by the school's secret society, The Vigils (along with some other students) for an "assignment" (the "assignments" are basically hazing). His assignment? To refuse to sell chocolates as part of the school's fundraising chocolate sale. But when the assignment ends...Jerry does something that no one expects. And at first it has some unexpected effects, but then...well, that's all part of the ending, which I'm not going to tell you.

But I can say this: not often does Mr. CR say "holy shit" (or the equivalent) when finishing a book. Both of us were stunned. It's a great book. It's a crushing book. But is it a book that should really be read by YAs? I just don't know.

What do you think?

Holy depressing books, Batman: We Need to Talk about Kevin

And now, for your reading pleasure, a journey through my recent fiction choices, which have been depressing the living shit out of me. Please do pardon my French, but if you read the three books I'm going to talk about in quick succession, I think you'll find a little bit of profanity is the least of all our worries.

And apologies: I'll get back to nonfiction. I've been reading nonfiction too. Interestingly enough I've been doing some research for a variety of projects, and the research has required fiction reading.

A case in point: Lionel Shriver's novel We Need To Talk About Kevin. I first saw this one in a bookstore, and because I have a friend named Kevin, I almost got it for him. But then I read the jacket copy and thought, well, perhaps not: "If the question of who's to blame for teenage atrocity intrigues news-watching voyeurs, it tortures our narrator, Eva Khatchadourian. Two years before the opening of the novel, her son, Kevin, murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker, and the much-beloved teacher who had tried to befriend him."

And that really sums it up. The book follows the format of Eva's letters/diary to her husband, Franklin, about their son and what happened in the years leading up to the "incident."* For the first couple of hundred pages, I thought it was a bit too pat, and that Shriver made Kevin out to be to easily "evil," from the day he was born. But somewhere in the middle I started wondering if this was a quietly genius book (and indeed, if that all-knowing feeling of evilness from the beginning wasn't some of the point, as the book is told entirely from Eva's viewpoint; is she a reliable narrator, or is she not?). Somewhere in the middle, she is describing how she goes to visit Kevin in jail (a juvenile facility, as he committed the crimes a few days before his 16th birthday), and this is what she discusses with another mother who is there visiting her also-incarcerated child:

"'It's always the mother's fault, ain't it?' she said softly, collecting her coat. 'That boy turn out bad cause his mama a drunk, or she a junkie. She let him run wild, she don't teach him right from wrong. She never home when he back from school. Nobody ever say his daddy a drunk, or his daddy not home after school. And nobody ever say they some kids just damned mean. Don't you believe that old guff. Don't you let them saddle you with all that killing.'

'Loretta Greenleaf!' [This is said by the guard.]

'It's hard to be a momma. Nobody ever pass a law say 'fore you get pregnant you gotta be perfect. I'm sure you try the best you could. You here, in this dump, on a nice Saturday afternoon? You still trying. Now you take care of yourself, honey. And you don't be talking any more a that nonsense.'

Loretta Greenleaf held my hand and squeezed it. My eyes sprang hot. I squeezed her hand back, so hard and so long that she must have feared I might never let go." (p. 166.)

Something about that got me. I've read reviews of this book where they said Lionel Shriver, as a woman without children, is not qualified to write this type of book. Which is ridiculous--should all fiction writers only be allowed to write about experiences they've lived? But if there are any faults with this book it is not with Shriver's imagination.

It was hard to read, and parts of it (especially if you thought about them too much) were almost enough to make a person sick. But I think the author did the subject (a very hard one, by the way) justice. Has anyone else out there read this thing? What do you think?

*I actually read it because I was interested to see how you could structure an entire novel this way, and tell the story backwards, as it were.

Finishing off the week with a depressing YA read.

For some reason, while I spent some time this week reading kids' and YA books, I started thinking about S. E. Hinton (of The Outsiders fame) and her novel That Was Then, This is Now. I read it a long time ago, and I remember it depressing the hell out of me. Now that I'm older and more jaded, I wondered, would I still find it as depressing?

I did.

The story, in brief, is this: Bryon and Mark are best friends, and because Mark has lived with Bryon and his single mother for some years (after his abusive parents shot each other--one of the first clues of the true downer nature of this book), they are really more like brothers. They spend most of their time hustling pool, trying to find money to live while Bryon's mother is in the hospital having an operation, and eventually (in Bryon's case) dating the older sister of a gentle, hippie-ish young teenager in their neighborhood.

I won't spoil the ending; I'll just say that eventually the hippie-ish kid has a bad LSD trip (the book was first published in 1971, when LSD was the scary drug of the day), and this calamitous event forces Bryon, when he learns that Mark is dealing drugs, to do something it seems he really ends up regretting.

All I can say about this one is, wow, brutal. I feel like I need a nice adult murder mystery or something to cheer me up after this one. I've actually never read (and still don't read) a lot of YA books. Are a lot of them this melodramatic?

Not your typical cozy British village.

Good lord, if you've got any kind of trend toward depression, don't pick up Nicola Monaghan's The Killing Jar.

Jar Monaghan's slim novel is set on a council estate* in the British city of Nottingham, where life's anything but cozy cups of tea and Miss Marples and Christmas crackers and any other jolly British stereotype you can come up with. This novel is filled with poor people, mothers addicted to heroin ("brown") who can't be bothered to care for their children, and children themselves who start selling drugs and living together as young teens to form their own family units in lieu of any kind of other normal childhood and young adulthood.

And yet? I really, really liked it. I liked Monaghan's main character, Kerrie-Ann Hill (most frequently called "Kez"), even though or perhaps she grew up in a shitty world and did what she could to survive, including falling in love with Mark Scotland, her childhood friend and, in the beginning, a fairly sweet guy who looked after her younger brother when she got sent to the British equivalent of juvie and her mother spent most of her time high.

But I'm not going to kid you. It is a relentlessly dreary novel. If you don't think you can stomach reading about junkies and beatings and people who never stop letting other people down, I can't recommend it. But it does offer moments like this:

"They reckon you feel love in your heart but that's bollocks. True love, the type what strikes you down and makes you change forever, you feel that kind of love in every fucking organ inside you. Liver, kidneys, heart, and spleen. Every tiny cell what makes up your brain and your spine, your bones and blood and muscles. It keens through you." (p. 270.)

Oh, that gave me shivers. That gave me Emily Bronte-esque shivers, the way I shivered when I first read Wuthering Heights and found Cathy's monolgue about Heathcliff: "My love for Heatcliff is like the eternal rocks below, a source of little visible pleasure, but necessary."

*Evidently council estates in Great Britain are the equivalent of our "projects" here, found in urban areas. If you'd like to see what they look like, check out an episode of Shameless, which is set on a council estate (in Manchester, I think) and leaves VERY little to the imagination.

My mission in life...

...I have decided, is to mock Jodi Picoult mercilessly. I can't help it. I know she's popular. I know a lot of people read her, and we just have to be happy people are reading. I know it's not nice to hate people at all, much less people you've never met. But God, do I hate Jodi Picoult.

Care She's got a new book out, Handle with Care, and if you want to read 477 pages of unrelenting and unrepentant ugliness, consisting of a baby being born with a degenerative disease called OI (osteogenesis imperfecta*) and her mother's wrongful birth lawsuit against her former best friend and OB-GYN (contending that her OB-GYN had seen evidence of the disease early enough in the pregnancy that the mother could have aborted, but had not told her), this is the lighthearted novel for you. Throw in the fact that the mother's a former pastry chef and periodically, weirdly, there are pastry recipes thrown in, and the creepy factor of this novel increases exponentially. Oh, and if there was any doubt as to which character is speaking when, even though each chapter is clearly labeled with that chapter's narrator's name--the chapters are actually printed in different fonts.

My God. Is this what we've come to, as readers? I've watched television and played video games that were more intellectually stimulating than this, so if this is the literature we're clinging to, well...I don't know. But it does make me sad. I don't even understand who can read books this ripped from the headlines, this tragic, not to mention this unbelievably long. I think that's why I keep beating my head against the Picoult wall; short, positive schmaltz I can understand. Although Tuesdays with Morrie was not for me, it was short, and it was uplifting. THAT I can understand. But nearly 500 pages of tragic, depressing, not patrticularly thoughtful schmaltz? Who has the energy to read that after a long day of just trying to make it in this world? I simply do not get it.

Now. Because nobody can illustrate how bad Jodi Picoult is better than Jodi Picoult, here's a little prose sampling. Enjoy:

"For two months now, we had known that you'd be born with OI--osteogenesis imperfecta, two letters of the alphabet that would become second nature. It was a collagen defect that caused bones so brittle they might break with a stumble, a twist, a sneeze. There were several types--but only two presented with fractures in utero, like we'd seen on my ultrasound. And yet the radiologist could still not conclusively say whether you had Type II, which was fatal at birth, or Type III, which was severe and progressively deforming. Now I knew that you might have hundreds more breaks over the years, but it hardly mattered: you would have  a lifetime in which to sustain them." (p. 6.)


"The outcome of this recipe is a work of art, if you can make it through the complicated preparation. Above all else: handle everything with care. This dessert, like you, is gone before you know it. This dessert, like you, is impossibly sweet. This dessert fills me, when I miss you the most."

Ugh. Just re-reading that makes me depressed. Have a good weekend, all.

*To her credit, Picoult does suggest at the end of her book that charitable donations can be made to the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation.

Is it me or is it the book?

Over the weekend I read Kate Atkinson's well-reviewed and bestselling novel Case Histories. It's a literary crime/suspense novel featuring former police detective and current private investigator, Jackson Brodie, and the three different cases he's brought in to investigate: a little girl's disappearance (which happened in 1970); the seemingly random attack on an eighteen-year-old office worker; and a woman's post-partum stress and her murderous attack on her husband.

Case It totally sucked me in; I wasn't really able to put it down until I was done. I liked the characters, including Jackson Brodie, and of course, Kate Atkinson is a British author, lending her narrative that certain British something that I can't define, but I usually recognize and always love.

And yet?

When I was done with the novel I felt bad. There's no more nuanced way to put it. And I don't know why that was. It just made me sad. It's not shocking in subject matter, but throughout the story the author does provide glimpses of the nasty underbelly of her stories. It was actually quite well done; Atkinson did a nice job of slipping the ugly in and not reveling in its descriptions. (I wonder if that didn't almost make it worse.) So what bothered me?

I gave it a little thought, and eventually shrugged and marked it up to the mood I was in the day I read the book. I do believe that one's mood can affect the reading experience, so I was satisfied with that. (Although doubts still niggle--I've read a lot uglier books, like Irvine Welsh's Crime*--and liked them, so is playing the mood card the easy out?) And, I can't say I was completely unpleased with my personal reaction. Sometimes I feel like I'm not much of a book "reviewer," in that I believe in saying what I think about a book, even if I didn't like it; but I do like to think there's a difference between calling a book bad and recognizing that a book is good, but simply not for me. (Hence the two categories in the sidebar; "Phoning it in" is for the bad books, "Not for Me," well, is self-explanatory.)

Case Histories was a good book. Why it made me so unhappy I don't know. When I want to figure it out I might pick up its sequel, One Good Turn, make a note of the mood I'm in when I read it, and see how it makes me feel.**

*Okay, this is really weird, but if you search Powell's for "welsh crime," the top titles, several of them nonfiction, all feature similar cover art of people holding hands with or standing near children, photographed from the back. Did the cover designer for Welsh's book know that?

**I know, life's too short to read books you don't love. But, honest to pete, charting my reading experiences and reactions is a hobby. Then, when people pick on me for not being very well-rounded in my hobbies, I have my own defense: "I don't only read." They don't really have to know that my other hobbies include making notes of my reading experiences, writing about reading, touring area libraries, visiting bookstores when I travel, and watching BBC adaptations of British novels.

Back on the Irvine Welsh train.

Previously I've stated that I am not fond of what I call "ugly fiction"--fiction that describes ugly, mean, cruel, or otherwise completely distasteful subjects, for no reason whatsoever (unless that reason is to cash in on morbid curiosity). Jodi Picoult is my favorite example of an ugly fiction author--take ugly topics like school shootings, using healthy children as donors for your unhealthy children, etc., wrap them up in schmaltz, sell millions of copies.

Crime After reading--and loving--Irvine Welsh's latest novel, Crime, I may have to rethink my heading of "ugly fiction." Because this book is about as ugly as it gets: Ray Lennox, of the Edinburgh police, takes some mental-health time off after a particularly nasty murder case involving a young girl. Traveling to Florida for a vacation with his fiancee, Trudi, Lennox is unable to escape his demons, and finds himself alone in a bar hoping to score some cocaine. He gets more than he bargained for: going home with two women, he is there, and high, when other men arrive at their home to join the party, and one of them tries to molest one of the women's pre-teen daughters. Lennox rescues the girl and eventually ends up removing her from the home and trying to get her elsewhere for safety. To make a long story short: he's stumbled on a pedophilia ring, where men get to know single mothers with drug or other issues and then take advantage of their pre-pubescent children.

Okay, that's about as ugly as it gets.

And yet, I loved the book. I loved Welsh's most well-known book, Trainspotting (book and movie version), as well, but I haven't been able to finish anything else of his before this novel. I tried--I love Scottish and British authors, so I always picked up his new books, but I just couldn't get into them. So why this one?

For all its ugliness, I don't get the feeling Welsh was writing about it to cash in on "ripped from the headlines" stories. His characters are complex; I loved Ray Lennox and felt terribly for him and the things he must have seen as a cop. His relationship with Tianna, the ten-year-old girl, is also written very well--he doesn't really want to get in the middle of that situation but he can't quite get himself to leave her until he can leave her somewhere safe. And, just like he did in Trainspotting, Welsh left me with the feeling that, while there are many very ugly things in this world, sometimes it is possible to get through them. That's the difference, I think. Reading ugly Welsh books makes me feel like there might still be hope, even in the presence of despair; reading ugly Picoult books makes me despair that I'll never have hope again.

Either way, I may need to rethink the broad heading "ugly fiction." Maybe "ugly fiction" and "ugly sellout fiction"?

What do you suppose I like about him?

There's no doubt about it. I have now read enough of Ian McEwan's novels to have formed the opinion that he is one weird dude. His 1981 novel, The Comfort of Strangers, which I finished a few weeks ago, is not only weird, but also deeply unsettling (violence included) in the end.

So why do you suppose I like him so much?

Comfort I can't honestly say that I liked The Comfort of Strangers. It was weird. It was uncomfortable reading all the way through, because I knew something violent was coming, I just didn't know what it was, and when it came, I hadn't been expecting the form it took at all. In my previous crusades against what I call "ugly fiction," I'll admit to not liking books that just seem dark and ugly for no reason. And this seems like it would be a textbook example. But yet...I was hypnotized by it (just as I was by Atonement).

It helps that much of McEwan's fiction (particularly the titles I've been reading) are short; this one clocks in at 128 pages. There's not a whole lot of story here, either, which is usually okay by me. Brits Mary and Colin, an older but not too old (frequent mention is made of Mary's school-age children, left behind at home), unmarried couple are on holiday in an Italian seaside village. They are passing their days with lazing, napping, and uninspired wandering, until they meet a native of the village, Robert, who wines and dines them at his establishment, and eventually brings them to meet his wife Caroline. Robert and Caroline seem to have some rather weird fixations, as well as some interesting ideas about gender roles, and that weirdness becomes horrifying at the end of the book. 

Did I mention that this is one weird book?

But the fact remains, for me at least, that there is something deeply sensual about McEwan's writing. I can't put my finger on it, but just reading his prose makes you feel a bit sultry. Maybe because it's a bit on the edge? A bit deviant? A touch too smooth?

"Through the warm nights, in the narrow single bed, their most characteristic embrace in sleep was for Mary to put her arms around Colin's neck, and Colin his arms around Mary's waist, and for their legs to cross. Throughout the day, even when all subjects and all desire were momentarily exhausted, they stayed close, sometimes stifled by the very warmth of the other's body, but unable to break away for a minute, as though they feared that solitude, private thoughts, would destroy what they shared." (p. 82.)

It sounds lovely, that. Keep in mind it occurs after what had been days of companionship but no real passion, and their renewed intimacy only appears after they dine at the weird couple's house. Hmm. 

Did I mention that this is one weird book?*

Anyway. So I'm now on the quest to read all of McEwan's novels (Enduring Love is up next) and try to figure out why he creeps me out, and why I don't mind. Any ideas what I should call this experiment? Sex, Lies, and Ian McEwan? Adventures in Ian?

*Even weirder? It was also made into a movie starring Rupert Everett, Helen Mirren, Natasha Richardson, and...wait for it...Christopher Walken.

Ugly fiction: Beautiful Children.

Beautiful Children: A NovelEvery time I try to read new, well-reviewed, good word-of-mouth literary fiction, it always bites me in the ass.

Consider Beautiful Children, by first-time novelist Charles Bock.  This is the book-jacket synopsis:

"One Saturday night in Las Vegas, twelve-year-old Newell Ewing goes out with a friend and doesn't come home.  In the aftermath of his disappearance, his mother, Lorraine, makes daily pilgrimages to her son's room and tortures herself with memories.  Equally distraught, the boy's father, Lincoln, finds himself wanting to comfort his wife even as he yearns for solace, a loving touch, any kind of intimacy."

Okay, borderline intriguing.  Then you have the critical blurbs, like that from The Washington Post:

"In the no-man's-land of Bock's Vegas there remain only the survival strategies of the hopelessly inept young. I cannot think of another novelist who has dared to attack this most pressing and complex issue so ferociously."

And then you have the text itself:

Editor's note: I made it through about 100 pages of this book, and then I just stopped.  I've been looking through the text this morning, trying to find a quotable snippet that would illustrate why I can't read it anymore, but taken out of context, any bits I'm finding seem either just profane or too descriptive of some of the less savory aspects of strippers' and street kids' lives.  And that's not really the point.  Bad language doesn't bother me, and I've read lots of weird descriptions of violence, sexuality, evil, what have you (I read both true crime and fiction by Chuck Palahniuk, so evidently I'm getting jaded?).  So no quote here.  Just a vague sense of feeling dirty, and that the world is icky, and that I am annoyed with literary fiction for being "ugly fiction" and for always making me feel this way.  Now I'll be off novels again for a while.  I'm sorry I can't illustrate what I mean better.