By Andrew Gregg
Depressing novels do more than depress us–they broaden our perspectives and sensitize us to the darker realities of life. We walk away more empathetic and mature than we were before. Here are six that are worth your time.
“There Will Never Be Another You,” by Carolyn See. Set in Los Angeles, See’s novel opens with the death of the husband of its main character, Edith, the day before 9/11. “There Will Never Be Another You” interweaves multiple storylines, focused mostly around Edith and her son son Phil, a dermatologist. As Edith struggles with her grief and loneliness, Phil’s family begins to deteriorate. The threat of a bioterrorist attack intrudes on the personal tragedy and family drama, leading to Phil’s involvement in a secret military unit. See’s novel is compact but wide ranging, brilliantly capturing the anxieties of our present era.
“Fat City,” by Leonard Gardner. Set in Stockton, California in the 1950s, “Fat City” follows two boxers, the veteran Billy Tully and the novice Ernie Munger, as they pursue their dreams of glory and the good life. To complicate their ambitions, both try to hold their tortured romantic lives together; Tully wants his ex-wife back, while Munger marries the girlfriend he impregnated. “Fat City” is one of the few novels that realistically captures what the despondency of failed aspirations and working class pain is like. Tully and Munger must come to grips with the reality that life does not always work out the way we want, and the result is one of the bleakest, most authentic novels ever written.
“Taipei,” by Tao Lin. “Taipei” follows its narrator Paul, a self-conscious and introspective young writer, and his relationship with his girlfriend Erin, as they wander through their lives in New York. “Taipei” is as much a modern love story as it is an exploration of how we live today. Lin’s self-conscious, apathetic, and anxiety ridden characters create a novel that is disturbingly and extraordinarily real.
“Revolutionary Road,” by Richard Yates. “Revolutionary Road’s” doomed main characters, Frank and April Wheeler, try to hold together both their marriage and their dreams in the suburbs of Connecticut. Frank grapples with his own unhappiness with his job at an ad agency, as April seeks to remedy the mundaneness of her own life by moving her family to Paris. When April discovers she is pregnant with their third child, the plans fall apart, along with their lives. “Revolutionary Road” is a devastatingly sad novel of aborted dreams and failed expectations.
“Norwegian Wood,” by Haruki Murakami. Murakami’s novel follows Toru Watanabe, a young student in Japan of 1968, as he navigates the complexities of a life marked by grief. After Watanabe’s best friend Kizuki commits suicide at age 17, Watanabe falls in love with Nakao, Kizuki’s ex-girlfriend. Nakao, however, is psychologically unstable herself, leading to her stay in a sanitarium. “Norwegian Wood” made Murakami a celebrity in Japan, for good reason. Nostalgic and melancholy, “Norwegian Wood” beautifully captures the pathos of love and loss.
“White Noise,” by Don DeLillo. When a nearby chemical spill forces the members of the Gladney family to confront their mortality, an experimental new drug named Dylar is promised to eliminate their fear of death. DeLillo’s brilliant postmodern novel about grappling with mortality in an absurd, consumerist society should be on every must-read list in existence. Don’t be fooled by the deadpan humor or the comic book plotline; “White Noise” is a deeply serious novel about how we deal with the inevitability of death.