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Life sucks, then you die

Kleenex and SAD lamps at the ready – these books prove depression and fiction are happy bedfellows

Last week, Richard Lea published an op-ed in the Guardian, ‘Literary fiction has a problem with happy endings’. The tagline: ‘Do serious novels really have to be so bleak?’. It came about a month after a bold claim from the new editor of Buzzfeed Books: writing books is hard; if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all! To the first, we say: yes. To the second: denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.

Sometimes life sucks. Sometimes books suck. However, sometimes books about life sucking don’t – why not embrace the despair? Check out our top ten picks for reads that’ll have you wondering what exactly is the fucking point of it all. 

Blood & Pudding by Katelan V. Foisy

Foisy’s meticulous record of conversations between two angsty teenagers, copious drug use and tons of #feels will remind you of Tao Lin, but here something actually happens: a particularly untimely overdose, among other things.

Us by Michael Kimball

Death is sad; the unexpectedly imminent death of your wife of 50 years is really sad. Released by Tyrant Books – publishers of Scott McClanahan and Marie Calloway, among others – Kimball’s portrait of the natural end of a marriage is painful in its attention to detail; his specificity and emphasis on small, daily activities keep the book from getting sentimental. 

Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone

Post-war drug dealing: very rarely not fraught with political complication and psychological anguish. Stone – a friend of Ken Kesey, writer of the cult classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – cultivates fear, paranoia, nihilism (‘I feel like this is the first real thing I ever did in my life.’) and desperation in this noir-y portrait of the underbelly of the underbelly.

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

If anything can make California seem bleak, it’s mental breakdown, possible parental suicide and coerced abortion. Also, Hollywood is evil! Didion is famous, obviously, but her fiction is often relatively swept aside – not least because it’s hard to stomach.

America Pacifica by Anna North

Dystopia often hits a little close to home, particularly when home is under imminent threat of becoming a climate-changed wasteland of intense income disparity and gritty desperation, punctuated with episodes of – what else? – jilted sexual awakening and drugs.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

Fans of Murakami know his work is most accurately described as ‘what the fuck was that?’ and this early-ish novel, which alternates between two universes – the sci-fi/cyberpunk "Hard-Boiled Wonderland" and the end of the world (because obviously) – is no exception.

Cruddy by Lynda Barry

Being a teenager is not that hard. Being a teenager reflecting on the time your father kidnapped you to take on a murderous cross-country road trip? Significantly harder. Have you ever seen Lilya 4-ever? It’s a brutal Swedish/Danish drama about sex-trafficking in the Soviet Union. The ending sort of reminds us of that. 

If the Sky Falls by Nicholas Montemarano

Lea’s Guardian op-ed hypothesizes that characters in contemporary literary fiction probably hope for happier endings for themselves, and in the case of Montemarano’s protagonist in the short story ‘To Fall Apart’, he’s right: He tells a story he has ‘revised so many times that it is now more memory than imagination’. Montemarano also lends his elegant prose to random torture, relentless struggles with mental illness, unresolved disappearances, thankless jobs, etc.

No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai

We love a story told in the form of journals, especially when their fictional writer is so disillusioned and alienated that he finds himself tormented by social anxiety (spurred by sexual trauma) to the point that he can’t interact with anyone, rendering him ‘no longer human’. That this is the second-best-selling novel in Japan lends some credo to our previous assertion: life sucks, then you die.

Lithium for Medea by Kate Braverman

Out of print until Rick Moody penned a new introduction in 2005, Braverman’s bitter lyricism is the perfect complement to this story, which features the aggressive denial of the past, addiction to the pleasures of the present and the like-mother-like-daughter inevitability of the future.