Bleak Books: The Best, the Bad, the Broken

Elizabeth Bluemle -- February 25th, 2014

As a reader and as a bookseller, I think about this question a lot: why are some bleak books compelling and memorable and worthwhile, while others make you regret the hours — and the erosion of your soul — wasted upon them?

I used to think it was a matter of hope, some sense at the ending that redemption was, if not at hand, at least possible. And maybe that’s true, but I’m not sure it is. I’m not certain I could make that case for some of the books I’ve found deeply affecting.

My reading tastes don’t generally include a whole lot of death. I have zero interest in novels about serial killers, or mysteries with their endless parades of dead women. And yet, some of the most powerful, memorable books I’ve ever read are violent. Harrowing. Chris Cleave’s Little Bee stays with me years later. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a stunner. This weekend, I finished reading an extraordinary debut novel, The Kept by James Scott, and while it was totally different from The Road, I found it similarly riveting and unforgettable. (Run, don’t walk, to read The Kept if you valued The Road. Not a book for kids.)

Perhaps it’s the rendering of the characters themselves, and not the ending, that separates a good bleak novel from a poor one. When the characters are fully developed humans, flawed and trying, as terrible as their choices may be, we care about their journey.

In YA books, Adam Rapp’s 33 Snowfish remains one of the most searing, jagged, bleak and beautiful books I’ve ever read. I was truly grateful for the flicker of hope it provided at the end. Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy is brilliant; at least, I can speak for the first two books. I cannot yet bring myself to read the third; I am afraid of its potential to swallow me whole. The author is masterful, and I find myself too invested; he is too good at making me feel the bleakness. And yet, though I avoid Monsters of Men’s possible bleakness, I count it as most worthy.

Books for teens must earn bleakness very carefully. We owe young people hope; it is usually self-indulgent to make them wallow in our adult disappointments. The bad bleak books do this, I think.

Maybe a good bleak book is one that makes us face some of the harder human truths, makes us think, disturbs us — upsets our simple preference for rewarded virtue and punished villainy — in important ways. The good bleak books deepen our appreciation for humaneness, mercy, compassion. Perhaps the good bleak books shatter our hearts, but show us how to start putting them back together again.

What do you think, those of you who have found yourself loving some bleak novels and hating others? What separates the blazing ones from the sour, empty ones?

5 thoughts on “Bleak Books: The Best, the Bad, the Broken

  1. Stacy

    You MUST finish the Chaos Walking series! The ending of Monsters of Men was so gut-wrenching yet hopeful, I was still crying long after I was done reading. I don’t think I’ve ever had a reading experience quite like that. I did love The Road, too, though it was devastating. And what about The Giver by Lois Lowry? Bleak, heartbreaking, but Lowry’s writing brings the story to a level far above any of today’s dystopian novels for kids. And speaking of difficult dystopian reads, I feel I must mention Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Bleak but beautiful.

  2. Joelll

    “Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy is brilliant; at least, I can speak for the first two books. I cannot yet bring myself to read the third; I am afraid of its potential to swallow me whole.”

    I found the first book, The Knife of Never Letting Go, unbearably bleak–that spark of hope seemed utterly missing, and it seemed that every attempt the characters made to take control of their situation just ended up making them more broken. But in the second book they are finally able to take actions that result in creating actual changes in their situation, and that continues in the third. Don’t avoid Monsters of Men–it will restore your faith in the humanity of Ness’s world.

    Ness’s A Monster Calls is also terribly sad, but I found it incredibly powerful. The illustrations make it more painful and more meaningful at the same time.

  3. Carol Chittenden

    Some of it is simply the eye of the beholder, too. I heard several people heap praise upon Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (“best book I’ve ever read,” etc., etc.) so I checked out the audio and listened to it. Before the end I was ready to drive across the median into oncoming traffic. A chacun son gout — mais McCarthy? Pas pour moi, merci!

    Which is not to say I stick to sunshine and puppies: many of the titles you cite are ones I love as well. I do want characters to get up on their hind legs and grapple with the situation in some way, shape, or form. If it overwhelms them, I can still identify with the effort. And Mr. Bezos can stick that in his pipe and smoke it.

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