Friday, January 20, 2012

Ugly Books

"An indescribable joy always rushes out of great books, even when they speak of ugly, hopeless, or terrifying things." -- Gilles Deleuze

I'm reading a book called Assisted Living. It was just published by the envelope-pushing Dalkey Archive (for example, see this and this and this), was written by a Swedish author using the pseudonym "Nikanor Teratologen", and, even in our age of gratuitous violence and unapologetic vileness, is proving itself to be full of outrageously cringe-inducing moments. Without ruining the plot--however tenuous it may be--it's fair to sum up the novel as being a parade of debauchery, rape, sacrilege, pedophilia, racism, murder, and more. Name the vice and you'll likely be able to open a page at random and find an instance of it.

It's an ugly book.

Appearances aside, Assisted Living may represent a subtle critique of liberal democracy and the free market; it may expose the lurking dangers of fascism; it may be an outlandish commentary on the perennial battle of the generations; its excesses may even prove to be so cartoonish as to be a lampoon of such writing. I'm certain arguments can and will be made for all of these interpretations and more, but in the moment of reading, I find myself wondering: Why?

Not so much why write an ugly book, but why read it? To modern ears, it may sound naive to speak of the redemptive qualities of art, but I wonder if we've really moved beyond thinking that a book (or any piece of art) should serve a purpose, whether moral, instructional, or purely aesthetic. (And, despite its vileness, Assisted Living does have its literary qualities.) If we accept this as a valid question, what are we to make of books like this? Why do we read them? More personally, why do I read them?

I read ugly books.

The cartoonish violence and excesses of Assisted Living may not be my typical fare, but the works of some of my favorite writers--Thomas Bernhard, Michel Houellebecq, and Angela Carter to name a few--can certainly be ugly other, possibly more damaging ways. After all, we're desensitized to violence pretty early on, whether through Tom & Jerry or Mortal Kombat, but the kind of bleakness in the work of these authors is altogether of a different, more corrosive variety. For instance, I've found that I need to allot myself several months between readings of Bernhard; otherwise I find myself on edge, depressive. I don't think this is an uncommon reaction to his work.

So why do I continue to read them? Because I prefer my humor black? Do I think that cruelty and violence are capable, in art, of shocking me into a more grounded awareness of the world? Or that works like this will rattle my complacency or awake me from my dogmatic slumber? A punch in the face does provide pretty indisputable evidence of being alive.

This raises the question, of course: do we need an occasional jolt of ugliness (in the form of a bludgeoning book like Assisted Living) to keep our desire for endless beauty in check? Is ugliness necessary?


Anonymous said...


Raises the question.

S. said...

Dear sighing anonymous,
The question has been raised.

Anonymous said...

Are banned books necessary? They just *are*.