I was reading a book the other day. It was a very good book, extremely well written, very imaginative. The images it evoked were sharp and emotive; it was clear what the author was trying to convey, her motives unfolded sensibly and organically. This particular book had been very well reviewed, and I had seen it mentioned elsewhere, as well – some nice buzz around it. The buzz was well deserved.
But reading it made me miserable. It was a very visceral book, with people in desperate situations. They were unaware of just how desperate their lives were, but I was aware, and it broke my heart. Yet the author also managed to make me face my own vanity, my own complacency, and my own shallowness, in feeling like I was better off than they were, or that I could in any way lay claim to understanding where they came from, from laying any claim to knowing them.
As I read it, I was miserable.
That’s the only phrase that seemed to describe this “type” of book to me: miserable fiction. Those books – and they don’t really have to be fiction, but “miserable literature” just doesn’t roll off the tongue as nicely – are ones wherein the reader is in a constant state of shame or guilt or despair due to the heady or desperate or desolate subject matter, or the dire consequences in which the characters find themselves. It’s not that the characters are miserable; quite often they are just doing what they need to do in order to survive, and they don’t quantify the value of their existence or feel the lack in a brooding, melancholy way. It’s the reader that feels miserable, because they do have the perspective beyond that of the character, but that perspective tends to reflect back on their own assumptions and presumptions, rather than hinging on the perception of the characters.
This is in no way an indictment of the quality of the writing or the integrity or validity of said desolate subject matter in these books; quite often it is the very quality of the writing that leaves such a deep impression. It merely reflects that throughout most of the reading – even if the ending is ultimately uplifting (although many are not) – that the reader is personally miserable.
There rarely is a moral in these stories; the point is not the dramatic, themed arc or achievement of a literary formula, satisfying as that may be. Instead, it is more a WYSIWYG strategy, the thread of a story that surrounds a place or a character but doesn’t necessarily weave itself into some other useful function, even if we step back and squint; at best there is a deft cat’s cradle nimbly developed that dissipates as soon as the next chapter starts so it can make an entirely new edifice from the same base material. This miserable fiction is subtly evocative, beautiful in its own inward disregard yet admirable for its own unflinching gaze outward.
Here’s an example: NoViolet Bulawayo’s marvelous 2013 novel of the life of a young girl from Zimbabwe, We Need New Names. In it, we are introduced to ten-year-old Darling as she ranges with her gang of friends (with names – not nicknames – such as Bastard, Godknows and Chipo, Stina and Sbho) in search of food and diversion in her impoverished shantytown of Paradise. These children were not born into this life; Darling remembers when she went to school, when her family had a proper house with rooms and running water, when there were cars and stores and food enough. But all these things are now gone, bulldozed in the strife surrounding the Gukurahundi campaign of Robert Mugabe where the fight against white rule split blacks into factions that warred then with each other.
Darling is bolstered by the knowledge that she has an escape route by way of an aunt living in America, in a place she knows as “Destroyedmichygan”. She will go there someday, to a place where she will have everything she wants, a big house and clothes and food, not just to the mines in South Africa, where fathers and brothers and uncles go only to return sick and broken and dying.
Darling does make it to America, and she does enter into a life of that on the surface is much better than the one she left in Paradise. But the casual consumption of her new country, with all its social expectations, cultural alienation and immigrant fears, and the fragmentation of any sense of a close knit environment leaves her aching and adrift, both longing for that left behind and yet unable to reconnect with it in any meaningful way. Her life in America is just as empty as her stomach was in Paradise. Now she has many of the things she dreamed of but none of the guidance and familial support, as gaunt as it may have been, to promise any brighter of a future – just a future littered with consumptive detritus.
It is a powerful book, full of nihilistic overtones that permeate without even the ability to recognize that any meaning is gone. Darling does not despair, but she seems to also be incapable of hope, living completely in the moment since a future is something that simply does not exist in her world. She takes only the most presumptive of initiatives, instead defaulting to a responsive reaction to her circumstances, seemingly unaware that the capacity for change even exists. Oh, Darling expects much, but accepts what is given even if it falls far short of her expectations.
I read this book and recognized that there is truth in it. I desperately wanted there to be a happy ending, but the ending is remote and gruesome. It bothered me, and even though I am aware that it is supposed to bother me, I feel completely inadequate in being able to reconcile what I am given in the narrative with what I want there to be – which I suspect is also part of the purpose of the writing. In fact, I feel as if I am an active part of the problem presented in the story, that my own selfishness and privilege and pollyanna outlook contributes to the gristle of the book.
And when they asked us where we were from, we exchanged glances and smiled with the shyness of child brides. They said, Africa? We nodded yes. What part of Africa? We smiled. Is it that part where vultures wait for famished children to die? We smiled. Where the life expectancy is thirty-five years? We smiled. Is it there where dissidents shove AK-47s between women’s legs? We smiled. Where people run about naked? We smiled. That part where they massacred each other? We smiled. Is it where the president rigged the election and people were tortured and killed and a whole bunch of them put in prison and all, there where they are dying of cholera – oh my God, yes, we’ve seen your country; it’s been on the news.
I had a similar reaction to Katherine Boo’s award-winning book Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. This non-fiction book perhaps affected me even more deeply since I have spent some time in India (Hyderabad, not Mumbai). There was the same sense of people living lives of necessity, of circumstance limiting their potential, their possibilities – but also, the reader’s/visitor’s despair of realizing that these people were not even aware of what potential and possibility could be theirs. Even more deeply disturbing, however, was my own conceit that I could make such a distinction, that I could judge their lives having only glimpsed them from the pages of a book or out of the tightly rolled-up windows of a hired car threading its way maniacally through teeming city streets.
Such works – these miserable fictions – have their purpose, and every reader takes from them what they will. There is something to be said of all awareness having a kernel of power at its core, that even imperfect or latent knowledge can lead to great insight, to unexpected discovery. And who of us can say that these lingering awarenesses uncovered in these books will remain shrouded? They could perhaps lead to public advancements or merely (merely!) personal triumphs, after all. If feeling miserable piques me towards alleviating the darkness in even a small way (my own or others), by introspection or a slightly broadened field of perception, or even by prompting me to hold a door open for a stranger or make friendly eye contact with the person at the next cash register I find myself at, then the affect of these disturbing works may actually have a happier ending. But I think the next book I read may be filled with sylvan elves or steampunk detectives or whodunit mysteries rather than falling into my own personal realm of miserable fiction. I can only take so much inescapable reality at one time.