Lately, pandemic winter has been hitting especially hard. In New York City, where I live, COVID variants are on the rise, and the weather has been unremittingly frigid and snowy. Morale is at an all-time low. People who are able to work from home are hunkered down, waiting for the worst to pass. Seemingly everyone I know is seeking comfort in their screens and books, and yet comfort material can mean different things to different people.
I’ve always been partial to art that disturbed me, but when COVID-19 upended life as I knew it last year, I found I could hardly stomach anything else. Nothing light or escapist— no televised baking competitions or Sex and the City reruns for me. Confections of any type only seemed to make me feel worse. Instead, I binged Micaela Coel’s series I May Destroy You, a troubling study of sexual assault that refuses easy answers or comfort; I devoured Tom O’Neill’s Chaos, a deeply unsettling deep dive into the Manson Family murders. Even now, I still find myself hungry for stories about the darker side of humanity. I’ve reread Ian McEwan’s grimmest novellas of incest and murder; I’ve spent late nights watching films like Se7en, even when I know I have to get up early the next morning.
image | Sara J. Winston
Much ink has been spilled over why so many people seem inexorably drawn to stories that frighten and repulse. The popularity of disturbing literature has been attributed to morbid fascination, the search for an adrenaline rush, an unseemly and fetishistic propensity for rubber-necking. Seen in a more forgiving light, the desire for darkness has been explained and excused as a form of self-improvement for the reader. Some argue it functions as exposure therapy for trauma, a way to explore our fears safely and experience the nightmares we hope to otherwise never experience, an exercise in imaginative thinking that will help us battle our own challenges and have greater empathy for others.
Supposedly, this is how we learn more about ourselves. Conventional wisdom holds that reading makes us better people because it develops our sense of empathy— at the very least, it’s supposed to be entertaining and enjoyable. An escape from reality, whether we learn something or not.
But while it’s true that disturbing stories can be their own form of escapism, that’s not necessarily why we should read them. Some literature is just hard to read, its content hard to face. It should be. We don’t read Lolita because we want to identify and empathize with Humbert Humbert; we don’t read Native Son to feel good about ourselves or the carceral state.
It is true that some literature simply caters to a reader’s desire to see some part of their lives reflected back at them—in fact, some stories do that quite well. But literature should challenge us, should sometimes make us uncomfortable, without any promise of redemption, edification, or healing. It should find, test, and surpass the limits of our empathy. I wrote my novel A Good Man because I wanted to unsettle and implicate my readers, and because I wanted to face head-on the questions of why someone would want to read such a dark story. In a way, it was a kind of experiment as to how far I could go while keeping my reader with me, even if they could tell there was no light at the end of the tunnel.
Right now optimism feels false. We do have real fear in our lives, some of us for the first time. Despite repeated appeals to personal responsibility, events are largely beyond the control of individuals; the future is uncertain, if not outright dystopian. We’re not sure if there’s anything that can be learned from the senseless, unforgivable waste of life and bottomless grief of the last year, but we do know that retreating from reality feels insufficient and impotent.
And so I’ll stick to reading what disturbs me. Have these books made me feel any better? No. Am I glad I’ve read them? Yes. That’s because art doesn’t need a social function; it doesn’t need to provide comfort. And sometimes, especially in deeply disturbing times, it shouldn’t.
Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy
The one novel I’ve read this year that I simply can’t get out of my head. On its face, it is the story of a platonic obsession between two girls at a boarding school in the Alps; more than that, it is a meditation on depression, nihilism, and terminally-stunted lives.
Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams
John Williams’ anti-western explores the brutality undergirding fantasies of the American West. The slaughter of buffalo at the heart of the novel will put you off meat for a while.
The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski
A truly haunting novel. The ravages of World War II, seen through the eyes of a dark-haired, maybe-Jewish boy wandering through rural villages in Central-Eastern Europe. Bracing and almost unbearably bleak.
Under the Bridge by Rebecca Godfrey
Godfrey’s gripping and ultimately heartbreaking work of reportage will make you question your casual true-crime habit. In 1997, teenage Reena Virk is beaten and drowned by the tough girls she idolized. There’s no solace or justice to be found here, only the legacies of racism, poverty, and trauma.
David Fincher’s period piece about the hunt for the Zodiac killer is my favorite film to watch after midnight when I have an important obligation the next day. Grisly, genuinely scary, and immensely satisfying in its stubborn inconclusiveness.
A stunningly prescient and outlandishly violent satire that you almost can’t believe got made. Paul Verhoeven’s brilliant condemnation of corporate greed and privatization will make you laugh and will give you nightmares.
This excellent German series occupied most of my summer. Though the show begins like a typical missing-child family drama, it isn’t long before you’re caught in a maze of time travel, nuclear apocalypse, and societal collapse. Don’t get too attached to any of the characters, or expect a happy ending.
A Good Man by Ani Katz is out today, ORDER HERE.