Sunday, July 13, 2014

Books That Bugged Me

This post contains major spoilers concerning the books that I have listed below.

These are personal ruminations. That is, this is not a post about the books that are most likely to disturb or to bother the general reader. Instead, this is a very short list of novels that bugged me. If I were attempting to compile a catalog of books that are likely to disquiet the most people, this post would be very different. If I were constructing a list of works that should be universally disturbing, then I would look for common elements that should, in theory, trouble us all. Instead these are just a few novels that, due to idiosyncrasies in my own psyche, bothered the heck out of me. These works pushed certain buttons in my mind. They may or may not do so for others. 

Thus, this list seems little “wrong”. I think that this little compilation looks a bit like a list created by someone who is not well read at all. It seems to be an odd and too – short combination of books. A list that contains glaring omissions.  A list put together by someone who has missed some of the really powerful and moving works out there (Many of which I have, of course missed). There are many novels that I have read, that in theory should be much more affecting then those below. As I stated above, this is a list based upon my personal reactions only. I choose these books solely based upon gut reactions that I had to them. Though I may attempt to use reason to analyze and explain why these novels seemed so dark to me, reason and analysis have nothing to do with the choices.

When examining the list I notice some interesting commonalities: Three out of the four works are either science fiction or at least take place in a speculative and very dark future. Three out of the four involve the disruptions of a relationship, at least in part due to an invasion by outside forces. All four of these works were written in the twentieth century and were written in English. For me at least, all of the major events in these books, though at times highly speculative, seemed plausible.

The whole idea of this list seems a little absurd when I really think about it. After all, I have read a fair share of non - fiction that has illustrated some of the most horrendous aspects of the human experience. As someone who has read a lot of history, and a lot of dark history, I have encountered real life stories of murder, rape, and the most unspeakable tortures and sadism that can be imagined, on both an individual as well as on a mass scale. What is contained in these non – fiction works was indeed troubling. Some of it is the stuff of nightmare and depict hell on Earth. Thus, I have had similar reactions these books. However, since such things really happened, such reactions seem to be more understandable.

So why should anything of the non - fiction sort bother me much? Perhaps because by introducing the reader into the mind and the soul a character the way non - fiction does not, fiction sometimes creates a special kind of empathy for characters. Another reason may be the fact that three out of the four books are speculative fiction. Maybe this gave the authors a particular amount of freedom to set up situations that were so uncanny as to create the sense that something was abnormally twisted in the Universe.

I have heard it expressed that really great books have the power to bother people the most. Once again my list does not exactly meet expectations. Some of the below really are not novels that belong in the category of great literature. With that said, in my opinion, all of the below are very well written.

These books bugged me so much that I will never reread them and would stay away from other books that I think might elicit similar reactions. These novels chilled my soul. I thought about them for days after completing. Later, sometimes years later, thinking about them brings up unpleasant feelings. I am not delving too deeply into why these particular works perturbed me so much. However, I am willing to discuss further and in detail, in the comments section or through private correspondence with anyone who wants elaboration and is interested in further chat.

The list of books that bugged is as follows:

Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

I first read this when I was very young. The famous story of Joe Bonham who is wounded by an artillery shell in World War I and wakes up with no arms, no legs, no mouth, no sight, no hearing, no smell and no taste. The book takes place almost entirely in the protagonist’s mind. Bonham cannot move, communicate or even kill himself. In the annals of literature, perhaps no other work has ever portrayed a soul trapped in such torment with absolutely no way to escape. This is a dark masterpiece of helpless horror and is truly the stuff of the darkest nightmares.

An argument can be made that this book rises to the level of great literature.

Rock band Metallica’s song “One” is about this book.

This is most obscure work on this list. While not great literature, it is a very imaginative tale of worldwide horror. Rival nations develop a chemical that can be easily introduced into water supplies and that is extremely effective in causing sterility in women. Various nations and rival factions use the toxin against one another in vicious cycles of attack and retaliation. In a few short years, ninety – nine percent of the World’s women are unable to bear children.

The true horror builds in the novel’s last chapters. The few remaining fertile women are sequestered into institutions and forced to become baby - making machines.  Julia, the wife of the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister is one of these unfortunate women. Piling grim horror upon grim horror, her relatives, though initially helpful in attempted escape attempts, and visiting her in the institution, eventually slowly betray her in what seems to me, a particularly cruel way. Her husband and twin sister, gradually over the years, visit her less and less frequently. Eventually it is revealed that the two have married. By this time Julia is so resigned to her fate that she is only bothered a little bit. No happy endings in this novel.  I have not read since I was much younger and will not do so again.

This novel heaps three levels of agonizing horror one on top of another. First, a microbiologist’s wife and two young daughters are killed in a horrendous terrorist bombing. Second, the microbiologist, later know as “the madman”, goes completely insane and plots retribution upon the world. His revenge is a devastatingly effective synthesized virus that kills only women. Over the course of the book the plague spreads throughout the world and over ninety – nine percent of the Earth’s women succumb. When a cure is finally found the few women survivors emerge from quarantine. In the closing pages of the book a final horror becomes apparent as everyone is expected to accept, based upon the new realities, that monogamous relationships for the remaining women, even pre - existing ones, will not be tolerated in this new world.

I have read a lot of “plague wiping out humanity books.” None has affected me like this one. It is so very different from the others. It is stark and believable. In an odd way, the fact that the contagion affects only one gender makes it all the more grim.

I would argue that Herbert wrote great literature when he created his Dune Series. This book, very different from Herbert’s more famous works, does not quite reach the level of greatness, but is very well written and effective. I have known several others who have read this book and were not so bothered. Thus, this one falls firmly into the category of “personally disturbing.”

I remember reading this when I was in my teens around the time that it was first published. I recognized the horror of it all this but thought that if it happened, I would be lucky to be male. In retrospect, I think that death would be preferable to living in a world that lost all of its women in such a terrible way. 

For me, this is the ultimate disturbing novel. It contains a unique set of horrors as the protagonists, Winston and Julia, endure mental, emotional and moral destruction at the hands of torturers in the service of the most oppressive regime imaginable. Their fate is clearly worse then death. There are two famous passages, one known as the Room 101 passage and the second that cumulates in last sentence of the book that hammer the horrors home. For me the worst passage was actually a third one, I call it the “Cold March Day,” where the protagonists are shown to be emotionally annihilated, their love for one another intentionally and effectively destroyed by the pernicious regime. I blogged about this one in more detail here.

Finally, there are a couple of books that I have not read, that I suspect, might elicit similar disturbing reactions for me, and thus, I will likely stay away from. One is The Road by Cormac McCarthy, which looks so very terrifying, grim and depressing in an ultimate and plausible way (I have not seen the film for the same reason). The second is Blindness by Jose Saramago. I have seen the film adaptation of that book. The movie contained a rape scene that I found to be unbearable. I have heard that the corresponding passage in the book is even more intense. As I like both McCarthy and Saramago and the plots of these books seem interesting, I would have read both in a heartbeat when I was younger. I am, however, getting squeamish in my old age.


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I have heard it expressed that really great books have the power to bother people the most.

Hilarious! Pure Romantic guff. The perfect standard for people who come out of Duck Soup or Sherlock Jr. with scowls on their faces.

Have you ever read the Marquis de Sade? You should definitely not read Sade someday, or ever.

There are some passages in Zola that are truly pretty disgusting, and I understand the reader who says "No thanks, I don't need it," even if it rarely - probably never - rises to the disturbing level of the examples you list here.

Because of the taboos and censorship it is kind of difficult to think of relevant examples from before the 20th century, before Modernism allowed everything.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - Well the thing about truly great books being the most disturbing has not been true for me. I wonder how others will weigh in on this.

I never read Marquis de Sade, but I never thought that it be a problem. Odd combinations of things seem to push my buttons but in light of how I felt about the scene from the scene in Blindness perhaps it is a good bet for me to avoid.

Violet said...

The only book on your list I've read is Orwell's. I found it chilling, but I wasn't overly disturbed by it. Totalitarianism is grim, and I find reading about the real horrors of Stalinism and Maoism more disturbing, I guess. It's interesting that women get a very raw deal in most of the other books you found hard to stomach.

I can't take de Sade seriously. I think his fevered imagination just ran away with him. Some of his writing is gross, but then a lot of current-day humans are very weird, too.

Steinbeck's The Red Pony, and Black Beauty were two of the books that traumatised me as a kid. Fictionalised cruelty to animals is something I still can't read about. I found Littell's The Kindly Ones quite hard to read a few years ago - it's about the Holocaust and there's a lot of killing and cruelty.

I think we all have 'hot buttons' that can get pushed when we read books on particular themes.

JacquiWine said...

A very thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Brian. I get a real sense of just how disturbing you found these books, especially when you say they chilled your soul. Just reading this post sends a chill through me.

Based on your comments, I would say you're probably right to stay away from Cormac McCarthy's The Road. My old book group read this when it came out in paperback, and it gave rise to our most heated discussion. About half of the group hated it, found it very disturbing and relentlessly grim to the extent that they couldn't bear to continue reading.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - Agreed that the stuff done under totalitarian regimes as well as during military occupations is just so bad. The thing about Orwell's work is how much it dug into the psychological ramifications.

I have included no works that involve cruelty to animals because the thought of that is so disturbing that I do not read them in the first place. Even some passages in Moby Dick were a bit disturbing to me.

You hit on something with commonality of these works and the plight of woman. I am very empathetic towards everyone. When I think about it however, I am just a little more towards the suffering of women. This really makes no sense when I think about it. It is simply an emotional reaction.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - I really connect with so so I think that is why I sometimes am so bothered by them.

Interesting that some folks said they hated The Road because it was so disturbing. That reaction seems common in regards books that are troubling. I do not hate any of these works. In fact I am impressed by their power.

Anonymous said...

I've only read 1984 and it was chilling and disturbing.

I agree with Violet, le marquis de Sade wrote repulsive things but it's hard to take him seriously.

I found If This Is a Man by Primo Levi very disturbing. And I want to stay away from that kind of books. I hesitated to read Semprun and I'm not sure I'll ever read Fatelessness by Imre Kertész. I might just because these victims need to be remembered


PS: re "I have heard it expressed that really great books have the power to bother people the most." It can't be true. 50 Shades of Grey bothered me a lot and it it's not worth the sheets it's printed on. It is disturbing to see a book so openly offensive to women have so much success. What does it mean about our society?

James said...

Like some of the other respondents I have only read 1984 among the four books you mention.
My assessment of Orwell's novel is that, while it is certainly horrific and difficult to read, it has redeeming qualities. I find Orwell's descriptions of the horrors of totalitarianism to be salutary in their predictive quality.
In my second reading in the mid-80s (I had read the book on my own, not as an assignment, in high school) I began to see it as an allegory (at least in part) and useful in this sense. That it raised issues that I still think about today raises it above the ordinary (my review:
You mentioned Cormac McCarthy's The Road in the comments section. I found that book to be difficult as well, but in a complex way McCarthy provided what I interpreted as a sense of hope. That sense of hope may not be enough for all readers (my review:
I agree these are difficult books to read and like you I am impressed by their power, but perhaps not quite bugged that much.

Guy Savage said...

I would have to think a bit to generate my own list, but off the top of my head: American Psycho.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - Thanks for the very thoughtful comment.

I read a lot of non fiction hand accounts of Concentration camp inmates. This stuff if terrible beyond belief. I am sure the fiction may be as powerful.

I think that one of the problems with Fifty Shades of Grey (I have not read it so I am just speculating) is that the message may be reprehensible. This would be undoubtedly disturbing. I have not read too many books that would fit into this category. Ayn Rand comes close for me but I cannot say that her work is disturbing. I would say that the theme of all of the above authors have humanistic and/or moral messages but are disturbing in other ways. Plus, while not all great, I would say that they are all fairly decent books.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Perhaps I should have emphasized that I think all of the above have merit, some a lot of merit as works of art. I believe that the message conveyed by the authors of every one again was admirable.

I even thought that there might be some hope peeking out in the appendix of Nineteen Eight - Four. I agree it had all sorts of things going on that make it an essential read.

They just all bothered the heck out of me!

I am off to read your review of Nineteen Eighty Four!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - I think from the comments thus far that such lists seem to be very personnel. In my own case I even hesitated to write this entry as I think that in some ways it really opens my psyche for all to view.

I can imagine American Psycho being disturbing.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

I've also only read one of the books on your list - 1984. One of the books read for my o'level course way back when, I can't remember finding it particularly disturbing aged 14/16 (I probably didn't understand all of its subtleties) but having read it several times since I can certainly see why it would make your list.

Great thought provoking stuff as always, thank you for sharing.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - Nineteen Eighty Four is such a universally read book, that it is a bit surprising that it shook me so much.

I originally read it when I was 17 (I remember as it was in 1984!) and it left me with a vague empty feeling. When I read it years later that is when it really bothered me. For me, it is the destruction of the love that existed between Winston and Julia that makes this so horrifying.

seraillon said...

There a few scenes in a few novels that I would rather not have allowed into my head, things I really wish I could un-see (the torture scene in Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, for example). Generally, though, I can stand the awful and grotesque much more than I can terrible writing. I thought Johnny Got His Gun was terrific, and 1984 I could easily read again (I haven't read the other two). But I will never get the stench of The Da Vinci Code off of me.

vb said...

I coonect myself toomuch with a book that when Iam done with it , it really take sometime to get back to the real time and place around me..and I share very similar thoughts regarding books..For me it was the bone people by Kerui Hulme was a quite disturbing tale..1984 i have never completed,now I think that this might have been the reason..Blindness Saramago being one of my favourite made me too sad with all the plot...My friends taunt me that I pereceive charcters of a novel like that of movie.Its strange and interesting how a book can touch one..After a long time Iam back to your blog and I must say it is a thought provoking one...cheers

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Scott - Your comment made me laugh.

I think horrendous scenes of torture and abuse would be difficult to get through I am not sure that I have read too much fiction containing this stuff. It is the reason I will likely stay away from Blindness.

It seems that the books on my list involved folks who were suffering over the long term.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi VB - I am so glad to hear from you. I hope that all is well :)

I have not read The Bone People but I heard that it is harrowing. I agree that for me too, the disturbing part comes when I feel a lot of empathy for characters.

Lindsay said...

A thought provoking post Brian, and very interesting to read your thoughts about these, though I confess the only one I have read is 1984, which I certainly found disturbing. I had The Road sitting on my to read pile a long time and I just didn't think I could stomach it so I think I gave it to charity. Picking up on what one of your other commenters said, I have read a lot of fiction based around concentration camps but a lot less non fiction because I just don't know if I could cope.

Caroline said...

I've seen the movie Johnny Got his Gun and found it VERY disturbing. I'd never read the book. It was enough for me. I've also read 1984 and did find some of it rather disturbing too.
I still want to read The Road. I hope it's not as disturbing as you fear. I've just read two utterly disturbing novels. The one I reviewed. El interior del bisque. The other one The Rapture gave me nightmares. Stay away from it. Maybe I'lll review it anyway.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lindsay - I read a lot of non - fiction about concentrations camps and other similar horror when I was a lot younger. Though shocked it seemed to have less of a detrimental effect on my psyche.

Interesting how we both made a conscious decision to shy away from The Road. I read Cormac McCathy's Blood Meridian. It was filled with horrendous violence but it did not get to me like the above books did.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I thought that the novel Johnny Got his Gun was so much more troubling then the from so it is probably best to avoid it too.

it looks like there are several novels called the Rapture. I would guess that you read the one by Liz Jensen? I would love to read what you thought about it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your great post. Having read Blindness, I decided never to try to watch the movie! Yes, things are really tough, but the writing is so superb, you definitely need to give it a try. I wish I could forget what it's all about an d reread the first 2 pages as brand new to me. Awesome!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Words and Peace - Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the good word.

I have read a few books by Jose Saramago and I really love his work. An interesting thing about the above list is that none of the books bothered me because of a particular passage that described brutality (even the Room 101 passage of Nineteen Eighty - Four is not the reason that Orwell's book is so disturbing for me). So who knows, maybe I will brave it sometime.

The Bookworm said...

Great discussion post Brian!
I agree that "really great books have the power to bother people the most". It's true I think because some of the best books are the ones that can get under your skin.

Interesting that Metallica based their song on Johnny Got His Gun.
Implosion sounds very creepy as does White Plague.
I have 1984 on my shelves, but haven't gotten to it yet. I read The Road and found McCarthy's writing to be beautifully sad. I remember that book was disturbing though, and unsettling. Scary stuff when a writer can make a world like that seem real.
Thanks for sharing these novels that chilled your soul!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida -As I alluded to plausibility is a key factor in making a book disturbing to me. The Road looks to be plausible thus it may not be for me.

Metallica actually has a few songs based upon literary works.

JaneGS said...

Mercifully, I have not read any of these, not even 1984, which I managed to avoid in school. I think the list is perfectly valid. I appreciate good writing, even if the subject matter is not something that I gravitate to, but I also know my own psyche and what I can subject it to without repercussion.

I remember quite a number of years ago, a friend recommended The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński -- I read the back cover and gave it back unread. It may have been an important book but it was simply not something I wanted in my head.

There are troubling books that I'm glad I read because they expanded my consciousness, but there are more troubling books that I just have to say no to.

Interesting post, and interesting topic to think about.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - I have never read The Painted Bird but it looks disturbing on a lot of levels. I too will stay away from it.

I agree, there is troubling and there is troubling. I guess that certain things effect us in detrimental ways. I think such things vary from person to person. For those of us that are so moved by particular books it probably is best to stay away from what bugs us this much.

Maria Behar said...

(This is very long, so I'm breaking it up into two comments. Lol.)

Oh, Brian, I TOTALLY empathize and agree with you! This is an EXCELLENT idea for a post!! I don't know how you were able to get through these books! They sound absolutely HORRIFYING!! I would NEVER be able to finish reading such books. Heck, I would never even pick them up! I've always been very sensitive. I can't even watch the evening news, because when I see a real-life tragedy reported on the screen, I just burst into tears. My husband knows he can't watch ANY news on TV while I'm in the living room.

Thankfully, I have never read any of these books. I had the intention of reading "1984", because it's a classic, but, now that you've mentioned how horrible the events in it are, I don't think I ever will.

There are two books that bug me, and I've never even read them. However, I did see the movie version of one of them. The book is "Beloved", by Toni Morrison. OMG. I had to run out of the movie theater in the middle of the was just SO nightmarish..... First of all, the plot of the movie (and book) is heart-rending. It's about an African-American female slave who actually kills her baby daughter in order to keep her from suffering through the evils of slavery. And these evils are well detailed in the movie. This movie still haunts me.....just like the ghost of 'Beloved', the baby girl, who also appears in the movie....

Another terrible book is "The Exorcist". I don't know WHY I decided to read this. After all, the movie is ABSOLUTELY horrifying! No, I never saw it, thank God! But, just from reading the book,I didn't sleep well for an entire WEEK.

Another terrible book that I had the sense to never read was "A Clockwork Orange", by Anthony Burgess. Nor did I see the movie. What is so terrible about the book is the theme -- whether it's ethical to attempt to forcibly change the personality of a psychopathic, sadistic killer, by making him feel nauseous every time he contemplates committing horrible crimes.....I have seen one still photo from this movie, and I was disgusted when I saw that it showed some sort of restaurant/lounge area full of white plastic tables shaped like naked women supporting themselves on their hands and feet, FACING UP.(Therefore, their legs were wide open.) DISGUSTING, and VERY demeaning to women. Why, oh, why, do people write, and then FILM, such morally reprehensible books?

Then there's "Lolita", by Vladimir Nabokov,which I will NEVER read, because it's the story of a man "in love" with a VERY young girl....

Another book that I DID read, that bothered me HUGELY, was "Wuthering Heights". OMG, I HATE this book!!! This book is NOT a literary romance novel. This book is all about Heathchliff's insane, irrational, revenge on the Linton family. The romance is barely there! It was sickening to read about this psychopath. He's just DESPICABLE. I don't know why this book is so highly rated. I MUCH prefer "Jane Eyre"!!

Another one I also read, and never finished, was "Anna Karenina". Remember I even participated in a read-along for this book? What, I wonder, was wrong with me? I HATED the subject matter of the book, which is adultery. I have NO compassion for people who cheat on their spouses. If they're in the wrong marriage, then let them get a divorce first. You see, I've been cheated on. I don't accept ANY excuses for this. So I don't know why the heck I participated in this read-along....

Maria Behar said...

(Here's part II.)

Another book that I read and hated: "The Catcher in the Rye", by J.D. Salinger. I couldn't stand the protagonist and his cynicism, not to mention his crude language. I read it in high school.

In addition to all of the above, there are four genres I totally REFUSE to read -- horror, erotica, transgressive fiction, and LGBT literature.

I dislike the horror genre because it's based on the writer eliciting fear in the reader. To me, fear is an unbearably unpleasant emotion, and I just can't tolerate it. As for erotica, it frequently contains such things as bondage, submission (usually of women), and "menage a trois". All of these are morally disgusting to me. As for LGBT literature, I'm simply not in the least bit interested in reading about relationships between people of the same sex. I'm sure LGBT people would also find it very uninteresting to read about straight relationships. As for transgressive fiction ("The Catcher In The Rye" belongs to this category), it deals with -- according to Wikipedia -- ***characters who feel confined by the norms and expectations of society and who break free of those confines in unusual or illicit ways. Because they are rebelling against the basic norms of society, protagonists of transgressive fiction may seem mentally ill, anti-social, or nihilistic. The genre deals extensively with taboo subject matters such as drugs, sexual activity, violence, incest, pedophilia, and crime. The genre of "transgressive fiction" was defined by Los Angeles Times literary critic Michael Silverblatt.*** UGH.

I once tried to read Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”, and could not get very far. The idea of a man being turned into a giant bug (and I think I know exactly what kind of bug it is) is just nauseatingly disgusting….

Several commenters have mentioned the Marquis de Sade. I wouldn't touch his books with a ten-foot pole. They're pure, totally brutal, pornography. (Of course, the words "sadism" and "sadist" come from this sick guy's name.)

WHEW! The floodgates Fascinating, isn't it, the power of the written word to so profoundly stir our emotions, whether in a positive or negative way?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - I was thinking that you would have some great comments on this post :)

Some of the books that you note are, or sound very troubling. The BOOK version of A Clockwork Orange, though its theme was ultimately anti violence, came close to making my list. There was a passage involving a rape and murder that was extremely troubling.

Your reaction to infidelity is definitely understandable and I can relate. I actually find the theme to often be troubling. In fact, both Implosion and the White Plague had particularly nasty marital betrayals that went a long way towards adding to the darkness of both works.

I do think that it is also important for art to sometimes show the dark nature of reality so I cannot say that I hate these works. They were just a little too much for me. I agree that if a book's theme is morally reprehensible that is a different story indeed!

In theory I would read any genre as I think that worthy art can pop up anywhere. With that said I do not think that I will be reading any erotica any time soon!

Thanks agin for the super comment!

So many books, so little time said...

The only one I have heard of is 1984 and I plan to read it sometime but won't be rushing out anytime soon. I haven't heard of the others and always find it amazing how some books can provoke such strong reactions within us. This would be a great meme don't you think :)


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - This would be a great meme!

What I think is interesting is how different books push certain buttons in different people.