Monday, June 25, 2012

Four Bleak Books

Four of the books I have written about in the past two weeks have depicted some of the hardest, saddest, most depressing childhoods and young adulthoods that I have read about for a while, along with, in some cases, the wrenching lifelong consequences of such childhoods. Two of the books -- Alison Bechdel’s “Are You My Mother?” and Jeanette Winterson’s “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” -- are memoirs; two of them -- Lisa Vice’s “Reckless Driver” and David Vann’s “Dirt” -- are novels. Vann has -- as I wrote in my post about “Dirt” -- said in interviews that the main character is based on himself, but exaggerated; I cannot say how much of “Reckless Driver” is based on Vice’s own childhood, but certain biographical facts suggest that at least some of the story may be drawn, at least indirectly, from the author’s own experiences. In all four cases, the parents are abusive and neglectful. These books focus in particular on the mother characters and their shortcomings. Although the biggest villain in “Reckless Driver” is the father, even the mother in that novel is neglectful. Three of the books write of violence in the family; although the exception, Bechdel’s book, doesn’t focus on physical violence, there is a kind of verbal and emotional abuse inflicted on the young Alison by her mother. All four of these books are important and well written; I am glad they were written, although it must have been painful for the authors to do so. Perhaps the power of words, of verbal and literary expression, was the mitigating factor for them. As for readers: Reading these books is also painful, but it is important that writers write (whether in memoir or fiction) about such experiences, even the most terrible ones, as they are part of life and we need to know about them. If we have had such experiences ourselves, this may be healing to know others understand; if we have not, it is important for us to understand them. That said, I must say that these four books read within such a short time period provided an unusually concentrated dose of bleakness; I am thankful for the small notes of hope in three of the four books (all but “Dirt”).

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