Thursday, October 01, 2009

Top ten depressing novels

Over at the American Book Exchange—the only place I buy used books any more—Scott Laming has compiled a list of the top ten depressing novels of all time:

( 1.) Cormac McCarthy, The Road
( 2.) Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
( 3.) Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure
( 4.) George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
( 5.) Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
( 6.) John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
( 7.) Elie Wiesel, Night
( 8.) Nevil Shute, On the Beach
( 9.) Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
(10.) William Golding, Lord of the Flies

A good list—but some essential titles for the bitter and pessimistic have been left off.

What about Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and the other novels from the ’thirties, that noir decade? I am thinking of Appointment in Samarra, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Butterfield 8, Call It Sleep, and if you include novels written during the ’thirties, though published later, Native Son and The Ox Bow Incident.

After the boom times of the ’fifties, unrelieved grimness came back into style. Flannery O’Connor’s Violent Bear It Away (1960) is depressing unless thoughts of the Apocalypse cheer you. E. L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times, published the same year, is an “anti-Western” without anyone to stand up to the cruel men who rape and murder. Revolutionary Road (1961) put paid to any hope for happiness in suburbia. Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel The Painted Bird is a carefully detailed chronicle of human pitilessness and blank suffering. James Dickey’s Deliverance (1970) is terrifying in addition to grim, and then ends on a note of hopelessness.

My favorite feel-bad novel of all time is Charles Willeford’s delightfully amoral Shark-Infested Custard (1993). The novel follows a group of four friends, swinging bachelors in Miami, who start their career by dumping the corpse of an underage pickup and end by facing the same problem—with one of their own number. [Update: More than a year after compiling this list, I finally got around to a full-length discussion of The Shark-Infested Custard.] Willeford is among the most underrated novelists in American literature. His better known “Hoke Moseley” mysteries, although they are not mysteries, uphold a vision best captured in the title of the second book in the series: New Hope for the Dead. No hope at all, in other words.

I am sure I have forgotten some significant entries.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad you mentioned Willeford. He is, indeed, one of the great unknown writers of the latter half of the twentieth century. Have you seen the note that Kurt Vonnegut wrote him in response to a blurb request? It says more about Vonnegut than Willeford, but it's fascinating nonetheless. You can read it here:

Also, I would add some of James Crumley's works to the list. The Last Good Kiss and Dancing Bear, in particular, are bleak novels. History is a fickle beast, but I do hope his work survives him by many decades.


scott g.f.bailey said...

Darkness at Noon
Of Mice and Men
Hard Times
Oryx and Crake
All Quiet on the Western Front
Flowers for Algernon

spring readily to mind.

D. G. Myers said...

I date my political awakening to reading Darkness at Noon in high school, which may be why I do not think of it as a depressing novel.

The others? Good choices.

R/T said...

Of course, you do not mean that your selections for the list of depressing novels are necessarily inferior novels. Or do you?

In any event, since you have already mentioned O'Connor's second novel, I must cite _Wise Blood_. Many Christians will argue that it is an uplifting and hopeful novel but I experience something quite different--a confrontation with the abjection of death (and that is almost always a catalyst for depression).

tickletext said...

The mention of The Violent Bear it Away reminds of something Flannery O'Connor says in Mystery and Manners:

"People are always complaining that the modern novelist has no hope and that the picture he paints of the world is unbearable. The only answer to this is that people without hope do not write novels. Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system. If the novelist is not sustained by a hope of money, then he must be sustained by a hope of salvation, or he simply won’t survive the ordeal.

"People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience."

shade said...

Under the Volcano springs to mind immediately. Becket's trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable) fits, and though I'm still not quite finished with it 2666 is a contender.

D. G. Myers said...

[P]eople without hope do not write novels.

Of course, O’Connor means something like without hope of heaven.

Under the Volcano—yes, of course. How could I have forgotten it?

danup said...

Appointment in Samarra is an excellent choice—my goodness—as is BUtterfield 8, which is worse both in temperament and composition.

How about The Beautiful and Damned? Far and away Fitzgerald's worst artistically inclined work, but he tried his best to be a good little depressing naturalist. Or McTeague, which is almost comically, overbearingly tragic.

D. G. Myers said...

Or another novel from the same year as McTeague. Kate Chopin’s little novel The Awakening in which Edna Pontellier awakens to the abandonment of her children and, ultimately, to walking into the ocean toward Cloud Cuckoo Land.

Anonymous said...

Brave New World
Handful of Dust
Heart of the Matter
Lord of the Flies
A Clockwork Orange
Cancer Ward

scott g.f.bailey said...

I have a fondness for Wise Blood that blinds me to any consideration of mood. Hazel Motes is one of my favorite characters, and O'Connor's level of craft in this book is amazing.

R/T said...

To S. Bailey: Do not misunderstand my comments about O'Connor's _Wise Blood_. I consider the novel to be one of the most important novels in American literature, and I am a devoted "fan" of the novel and the author. There is, however, an impact upon me whenever I reread it that is deeply disturbing. Write that up to my own biography and the mirror O'Connor holds up to me in Hazel Motes' experiences. While it is a "negative" experience in some ways because of what Julia Kristeva would call my confrontation with the abject, it is sublimely "negative," which makes it an aesthetic success.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Chester Himes, Blind Man with a Pistol. That title, that's a philosophy of the world.

John Baker said...

Camus: L'Étranger
Coetzee: Disgrace

Anonymous said...

Hangover Square said...

John Obrien's, Leaving Las Vegas.

s said...

The Tunnel

Most depressing and one of the best novels ever.

Stephen said...

Good Morning, Midnight, by Jean Rhys. Relentlessly bleak story of a lonely woman wandering around broke and drunk in Paris in 1936. Couldn't be darker, but you never want it to end.

Anonymous said...

Good call on Willeford. The Shark didn't really depress me, though, except for the change of locales from sunny Miami to wintery Chicago. The fate of Sideswipe's Pop Sinkewicz dug a deeper trench in my stomach than anything that happened in the Shark.

What about Fred Exley's "A Fan's Notes" ? That's pretty sad.

Empress Trudy said...

I'm not entirely sure if Vasily Grossman's "Everything Flows" is merely depressing or something beyond the death of hope.