Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Trouble With Fiction

I have to admit that over the last number of years I’ve found it harder and harder to read fiction. When I say fiction, I’m referring to the corpus of so-called ‘high literature’ that constitutes the accepted canon. When I try to discover why this is so, I can only say that I find most fiction generally serves the purpose of life affirmation, consolidation of the status-quo and the validation of all the usual bourgeois values. Rarely does one find a novel that portrays what I take to be the most obvious features of life: its futility, its built-in structures of dissatisfaction, its vanity, the misery of the world and so on. Generally nearly every novel is an affirmation of the lives of its characters (which, when boiled down, generally means an affirmation of the life of the author) and an affirmation of the world. The message of so many novels amounts to nothing more than ‘Yeah, life is difficult, but hey, it’s all worthwhile really and we must keep the show on the road’. Only rarely does one discover a black gem of a novel that begs to differ. Works such as Journey To The End of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand Celine, No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai, the novels of Thomas Bernhard and those of Samuel Beckett (although there is in the Beckett academic industry a conspiracy to portray him as a life-affirming comedian rather than the dark sage he really is) provide rare and desperately needed oases amongst the infinite libraries of life-affirming prose. Personally, I find my flagging taste for fiction to be a source of discomfort, as reading is surely one of the few great and last refuges from suffering. If anyone has any novel recommendations they’d like to share that they think would hit the (bitter) sweet spot, I’d love to hear from you.


  1. "When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."
    — C.S. Lewis

    I'd like to start and end with a couple of quotes from my favorite author. I don't know if you're familiar with the work of Clive Staples Lewis, but "The Chronicles of Narnia" are definitely among my favorites. I highly recommend that you read them. Don't get me wrong, I'm not religious. This series of books has always struck a chord with me though. Bitter? Yes, because it describes the utter futility of humanity changing this universe for the better; that we need to place our trust in something outside of "reality". Sweet... because there is that glimmer of hope in the idea that Aslan (i.e. God) cares about each character and plans to set everything right. There is no disgusting praise for the earthly nuclear family anywhere to be seen! Foolish fantasy? You betcha. Good outlet though... after all, we all need something to hold onto :)

    "If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world."
    — C.S. Lewis

  2. Thanks, Garrett. I must admit that I was a Lewis man myself when young. I much prefered the Narnia books to the Tolkien epics. Ah, childhood days when the full horror of existence was yet to be revealed!

  3. Karl,

    Thanks for saying aloud what I'm whispering to myself all the time! I love Céline, Bernhard, and Beckett as well. I didn't know "No Longer Human", but I'm going to add it to my reading list.

    A couple of recommendations:

    "The Course of the Heart" and "Things that Never Happen" by M. John Harrison.

    From Pleroma to Kenoma in a wonderfully depressing Gnostic journey.

    "Remember You're a One-Ball!" by Quentin S. Crisp.

    Or how education literally castrates you.

  4. Thanks for the recommendations, Josep. By the way, one very important novel I forgot to mention in the original post was 'The Tartar Steppe' by Dino Buzzati. This, in my opinion, is the greatest ever novel written about time and disillusionment. Forget Proust! Read Buzzati!

  5. Infinite Jest. More than anything.

  6. In fact, we should do this a thing, always pointing out the good books, i.e, those who have a tint of what Karl is looking for. I myself prefer those as well, granted that I do read some more light stuff from time to time - but I love it when I find a black gem, as well.

    Speaking of which, Josep here is an author as well, and he has the stuff we are looking for in a fiction. His book called "The well behind the door" is very interesting. So there´s my first recommendation.

    As another one, I will point out Junji Ito´s work both in Uzumaki, and Gyo. Those are horror mangas, and have the tint of despair and reflections on life´s weirdness. If you google it, you can find it in the web.

    Great post and comments everyone!

  7. For fiction, I always wind up returning to sci-fi. Interestingly, almost everything I've read of that genre lately concerns a possible threat to humanity's existence, including the Frank Herbert series I'm in the middle of right now. Stephen Baxter seems poignantly aware of life's shortcomings, as well as its ultimate futility, and he actually approaches the question 'why SHOULD humankind live on?", but then just sort of cops out with a shrug of the shoulders and, hey, let's move the plot along, shall we?

    Then again, I don't think I've ever even read a horror novel that didn't have a happy ending. Hope conquers all. Yeah.

  8. Funny thing is, Karl, I was into the Hobbit/Lord of the Rings stuff when I was 4-5... somewhere in there. (Beyond my reading level of course ;) If I remember correctly, I loved the animation) Different strokes I guess.

    I recall several Narnia books being scattered around my house in years past as well. I must've picked them up and read a couple at that time, but I never did really appreciate the writing until way later in my life. Come to think of it, I never read The Lord of the Rings until 2007. A former friend loaned it to me during my stint as a ranger in South Africa. I read the whole thing, but it just didn't do anything for me. He referred to it as his "bible", and made me swear guard it with my life from the resident vervet monkeys. Easier said than done... but it survived :) Makes me wonder how Tolkien and Lewis could have been friends. They seemed to have such radically different styles.

    S'up Jim! True... hope just prolongs suffering. Don't have much choice at the moment though. Besides... I get too much enjoyment from taking the piss out of the Sister Wolf types! They can all go suck a bag of dicks :D

    All the best

  9. Shadow,

    Thanks for your public recommendation of my book! It's a pity it's not translated into English :(
    I add Charles Williams to the list: The Place of the Lion, All Hallow's Eve, etc. It's the missing link beteween Lewis and Tolkien. Somedoby said that by reading him, you could skip Lewis entirely... He's also a Christian pessimist, but much darker than Lewis.


    British authors M. John Harrison and Quentin S. Crisp write horror stories that never have a happy ending. Highly recommended!

  10. Josep,

    You are more than welcome man. That cover with the eye on, it´s just cool, you know it.


    There are certainly some that do not have a happy ending, although there are not a lot. In most cases, it´s yeah, "hope conquers all".

    And how about Lovecraft? He certainly has some (very) interesting ones, and pretty much none of happy endings! =)

  11. "It's a wonderful strife" is great, it's about the guy played by "alfalfa" in "it's a wonderful life". The comic follows him and his pitiful decline after where he is basically told to ‘fuck off’ by George Bailey

    The story/ending is painful but realistic as it depicts life for those less fortunate and it's damn strife all right. Don't let the comic scare you off, it's really good


  12. Fascinating post. I have quoted part of it and commented on it in an unusual context on my blog:


    The post referring to this post will appear on June 13. I hope you enjoy it.

  13. Cheers, ToB. I'm looking forward to reading your post and thanks for dropping by.

  14. I strongly recommend the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth to you! Particularly "Radetzky March" and "The String of Pearls" (the original German titles are "Radetzkymarsch" und "Die Geschichte aus der 1002. Nacht").

  15. @Anonymous. Cheers for the recommendation. Will check him out!

  16. If it's any consolidation, fiction novels often contain happy endings to keep people from having nervous breakdowns. They know deep down inside that life is full of suffering and that's why they seek an escape from it via these kinds of novels. I understand it so well because while I enjoy some fiction that reflects my anti-natalist mindset, I can't always "handle" it. I don't always want to be reminded of the truth because sometimes it causes me to suffer psychologically.

    Like someone above said, Asian (Japanese/Korean/Chinese) fiction (films AND manga/comics) can be very dark. I would also recommend "creepypasta," which are short scary stories (and sometimes videos and pictures) posted online. A lot of them are very dark and have a "hopeless" and "madness" feel to them.

    Oh yeah! I forgot about an awesome comic book I recently read called "Crossed: Volume 1" by Garth Ennis. It does have a "happy" ending, but it's EXTREMELY dark. A warning: The art/concepts are very graphic and unnerving (there is blood, gore, murder, torture, and rape), so if you're not okay with that, I'd skip it. Otherwise, it's a really good read.

    I would also highly recommend checking out tvtropes.org for fiction recommendations. The site has enhanced my enjoyment and appreciation for fictional works. I think you'll like the following pages: Downer Ending, Cynicism Tropes, Cosmic Horror Story, High Octane Nightmare Fuel, And I Must Scream, Lovecraftian Tropes, Cruel and Unusual Death, Harsher in Hindsight, Funny Aneurysm Moment, Apocalyptic Index, and Speculative Fiction.

    If you're looking for movie recommendations, I highly recommend the following: In The Mouth of Madness (Lovecraftian inspired), The Final Destination series (Warning: Graphic violence/gore), and The Mist (monster horror, human horror, and a dark ending).

  17. Thanks for the effort put in with the recommendations, Anonymous. Appreciate it! Will check them out.

  18. Hi Karl,

    Just wanted to say I've been reading your blog for a while and have been very impressed. You put into words all the thoughts I have that I don't have the eloquence to express.

    This post on literature in particular was so interesting to me that I decided to forsake my lurker status and post :-)

    "I can only say that I find most fiction generally serves the purpose of life affirmation, consolidation of the status-quo and the validation of all the usual bourgeois values."

    Absolutely. Luckily, as you say, there are a few exceptions . . . "Journey to the End of the Night" being one of the greatest, of course. Here are some more, hopefully you haven't read all of them!

    -Heraclitus (Maybe the first antinatalist in literature!? Guess his fellow Greeks weren't really paying attention)
    -Sophocles (I always view Oedipus gorging his own eyes out as symbolic of what someone is tempted to do upon realizing the truth of this world: destroy the senses)
    -Diogenes the Cynic - the greatest philosopher, ever. Screw Plato and Aristotle. There's a wonderful new edition translated by Robin Hard for Oxford World Classics. I'm afraid if Diogenes had to live in the 21st century he probably would kill himself.
    -Pascal - Pensees
    -Heinrich von Kleist
    -Giacomo Leopardi
    -Schopenhauer (the king of elucidating truth & despair! - obviously you already know him, but I can't help but want to insert Schopenhauer into any list I make)
    -Ambrose Bierce - The Devil's Dictionary
    -H.P. Lovecraft
    -Par Lagerkvist - The Dwarf
    -Knut Hamsun - Mysteries
    -Sadegh Hedayat - The Blind Owl
    -E.M. Cioran - The greatest philosopher to have ever lived (second to Diogenes). Favorites: The Trouble With Being Born, A Short History Of Decay, On The Heights of Despair, etc. etc.
    -Ann Sterzinger - NVSQVAM. Clearly an antinatalist . . . and also a fantastic writer. Depressing as hell but also has a dark sense of humor, like Thomas Bernhard.
    -Thomas Ligotti

    I'm impressed you've heard of Dazai! I studied Japanese literature in college, so I'm always frantically searching for dark, pessimistic Japanese books, so I can simultaneously improve my Japanese while reflecting on the stupidity of human beings, the cruelty of nature, and so forth. Alas, it is not easy. Kamo no Chomei's "Hojoki" is a short and beautiful little work about the horror and meaningless of existence. Quite ahead of its time. You might also like:
    -Akutagawa Ryunosuke - short stories like Rashomon, In A Grove, etc.
    -Natsume Soseki - Kokoro (summarizes in very quiet and beautiful language the hell of modern life. I'm surprised this pessimistic gem is regarded as a classic in Japan, along with No Longer Human)
    -As the poster Shadow kindly pointed out, Japanese manga (and anime) has many dark gems to discover. Anime in particular (sorry, not books - but still art!) - check out Texhnolyze, Bokurano, Berserk, Kaiji, Welcome to the N.H.K., Shiki . . . too many. Although a good starter for you might be "Aoi Bungaku" - it adapts classic depressing stories into anime. The first four episodes are an adaptation of No Longer Human. You may like it.

    Sorry for the long post, I hope there was something new in there for you. Thank you as always for your wonderful thoughts, they are always a source of comfort to read.

    1. Hello, Anonymous, and thank you! A great list, many thanks. There are a lot of Japanese authors on that list I haven't heard of and look forward to digging into to.

      Yes, Dazai is wonderful and NLH is a masterpiece.

      And don't forget Beckett!

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    1. Well, Endgame is my favourite play of all time, so I'd certainly recommend that. The core of his work is the trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, and Th Unnamable. The middle of those is my favourite ever novel and can be read alone. If you're looking for a more gentle way in to Beckett, try 'Watt', a very funny novel on the chaotic absurdity of existence.

      Let me know how you get on!

  20. Excellent, will add those all to my reading list! Many thanks.

  21. I'm currently rereading Kingsley Amis's The Old Devils... one of my favorite books ever, a darkly humorous (both very dark and very humorous, from laugh-out-loud to dry to stomach-wrenching) dissection of the fun that awaits everyone who doesn't get whacked young: the vicissitudes and indignities of watching the body die and the mind give up hope.

    (Anti-pro-life fiction tends to go down a bit sweeter drenched in the absurd, I find.)

  22. P.S. I'm bookmarking this thread for when I need new reads...

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, Ann. Someone also recommended his novel 'The Alteration' to me. And don't worry, a review of your novel is on the blog schedule. All the usual excuses for the delay: life, despair, hopelessness etc

    2. Sometimes it's hard to find something to say. Oh! I forgot to mention my favorite book, probably, of all time: Thackeray's Vanity Fair. As compassionate as it is condemning.

    3. PPS The Alteration was great as I recall, though I read it years and years ago. Maybe due for a re-read. I find Amis gets better as you age.

    4. (Amis pere that is... fils only gets worse...)

    5. Thanks! Will check out Thackeray. Agree about Amis jnr, a shallow egomaniac. At least Amis Snr was a funny egomaniac.

  23. a must read: The demon of noontide ennui in western literature