Existentialism

Unsettling Chapters: The Fall

I’ve always felt a deep kinship with Albert Camus. We both come from working-class roots, and we each found our way to journalism. That’s about where the similarities end. While I broke into newspapers as a music and features writer, Camus was editor of Combat, an underground political paper that was part of the French Resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II.

He and his co-workers were jailed and sometimes murdered. If you want to read some amazing and inspirational writing, pick up Between Hell and Reason, a collection of his war journalism. There is an immediacy to his writing, because he knew that every article could be his last.

If this book doesn’t get you up and off the couch (at least to go to the voting booth), nothing will.

However, that’s not the book I want to discuss today, although there is plenty disturbing about Nazi occupation. Truly, any Camus offering is unsettling, in the truest sense of the word, because that’s his intent. These are not pastorals. Camus does not soothe the reader with hugs and rainbows. He couldn’t care less about your spiritual nourishment.

Camus challenges the reader. He inspires the reader. Discomfited? Good. That’s a natural way to feel. The question is: What are you going to do about it?

So it goes in all his works, both fiction and non. My two favorite books of his, and two at the top of my all-time list are The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger. The Plague is one of his darker (and classic) works, but for our purposes at Unsettling Chapters, nothing matches The Fall.

Here we have the long-form confessional of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, who haunts the smoky confines of a lowlife bar in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. He tells his story to an unknown, unseen audience, and that juices the narrative with an intimacy and informality we don’t always get from Camus.

It’s also inherently unreliable. What do we make of Clamence and his wild tale of falling from grace? Can we believe it to be true? Is it the ravings of a madman or a drunkard? Clamence even says, when describing a motto for his house, “Don’t rely on it.”

I’ve read The Fall twice, and I’m still not convinced that “we’re” even there. At the end, there is a shift suggesting that Clamence has been having a dissociative episode and talking to himself the whole time: “Are we not all alike, constantly talking and to no one…”

Clamence takes us on a guided tour of Amsterdam, which is designed, he says, in the nature of Dante’s rings of hell. We move through the city via his dramatic monologue.

But though setting has an important part to play, it is the narrator’s interior landscape at center stage. Clamence presents the anxieties of his time, and they look very similar to modern anxieties. He speaks for the fragility of man, and how one’s descent is incremental.

Camus nails the pathway of anxiety and how we are our own worst interrogators. He touches on thought perseveration, self-sabotage and even has an incident of road rage—perhaps its first mention in literature?

In turns hopeful and hopeless, Clamence is a man buried under the rubble of his failings, held down by his own hand. It’s a reminder that we make poor choices, focus our attention on the things that scar us, and ultimately, author our own demise.

Now that’s an unsettling premise.

I don’t imagine a film version will displace It’s a Wonderful Life as a holiday tradition, but for anyone curious about the workings of a mind in distress, you should wind your way into this twisted narrative.

Unsettling Chapters: Notes from Underground

“I am a sick man… I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man.” Is there a better opening line in literature?

Most importantly, this sentence establishes the tone that defines Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. Considered to be the first modern novel, there is no other work that as deftly captures the anxiety of despair and inadequacy.

Our narrator, the Underground Man, guides us through a dark and unpleasant world, recounting his drab civil servant’s life and the many insults that have shaped his misanthropy. Through this, he unearths the philosophy of the underground. It is a grim, but honest view, and with no connection to the surface world, the Underground Man simmers in his despair.

Actually, I’m not sure “simmer” is a strong enough word. The Underground Man doesn’t experience pain so much as he consumes it. He recalls past injustices when there is no fresh ones to sustain him. Misery exudes from his pores, his breath, his clothes, and rather than opening a window, he basks in the stench of his humiliation.

But his ordeal has only begun.

We come to section two, “Apropos of the Wet Snow,” in which the true horror is set in motion. Here, we get more action and less confession. Following a series of insults, the Underground Man encounters a young prostitute, Liza, and for a time, redemption—and through redemption, meaning—seems possible.

Inevitably, though, you remember that you’re reading Dostoyevsky, and things become even darker than they were before. Watching the Underground Man abase himself is one thing. Watching him do it to another is harder to bear.

But of course, this is necessary to Dostoyevsky’s theme. Denigration is a team sport, and it relies on the consent of both victim and aggressor. That’s why, sadly, in the cycle of abuse, victims become abusers. We need Liza in the story to serve as witness to the Underground Man’s suffering. We need her to offer him redemption, or else he remains only a victim (which would be neither believable nor compelling). Ultimately, he is a conspirator in the surface world that has forced him underground.

And with true Dostoyevsky flair, Liza reminds us that there is no bottom. We meet the Underground Man, and we believe him to be the nadir of humanity. And then he meets Liza. We can only imagine what other characters are waiting offstage, unseen, but their suffering no less palpable.

So, this book may not be everyone’s mug of Russian Caravan, but it should still make your to-read list (especially if you’re a fan of unsettling literature). Notes from Underground is a link to the past, as it shows us that modern anxieties aren’t so new. It’s a classic work of existential philosophy. And artists and analysts alike should read this as a guidebook to the darkest shadows of the subconscious.

Notes from Underground is available as a free ebook through Project Gutenbeg.

Unsettling Chapters: All the Names

As I’ve expressed in previous posts, loss of one’s identity is one of the more unsettling outcomes a story can provide. With life such a fleeting thing, rarely does one’s name live far beyond their years.

Fair enough. To be lost to the ages is understandable, but for some, the worst fate is to be forgotten in your own time. It’s a unique flavor of despair, born of an imbalance between social needs and social disconnect.

Nowhere is this curious space more poignantly explored than in José Saramago’s All the Names.

This book was published a year before Saramago, best known for the novel Blindness, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. All the Names is worthy of such honors.

The protagonist, one Senhor José, works in a nameless city (a stand-in for Lisbon in Saramago’s native Portugal) as a low-level clerk. Similar to Dostoyevsky and Kafka, Saramago presents us with a character caught in the gears of a drab, oppressive machine of unknown origin and inexplicable intent. He works for the Central Registry, which tracks the births, marriages and deaths of all citizens. Every life is reduced to an index card bearing these dates. The job of the Central Registry is to create, update and file each card.

“We all know that, however long old people may last, their hour will always come. Not a day passes without the clerks’ having to take down files from the shelves of the living in order to carry them to the shelves at the rear…”

José, who actually lives at the Registry building, makes nightly sojourns within its stacks. He hopes to escape his “bureaucratic alienation” by searching for meaning among the necropolis of index cards. Then one day, he finds something else. He becomes fixated on the card of an anonymous woman, and begins a clumsy search for her throughout the city.

Of course, what he’s really doing is working through an existential crisis. Or some other anxiety. The archives in the Central Registry are so large that clerks have become lost in their labyrinth. The metaphor is apt for José’s anxious mind. One bad thought, and then another. Disaster lurks eternal.

It’s unsettling to think that, in the end, we’ll be little more than forgotten statistics. The same goes for everyone we love and care for. We will all be forgotten. Time will make sure of that. What’s worse, though, is to feel societal mechanisms imposing anonymity while we’re still alive. To become a living ghost.

What makes All the Names successful, as with all existentialist writings, is that the answers seem more like questions. So, what is life if but a few dates typed onto an index card? Is there meaning or merely statistical data? Like Albert Camus, Saramago reminds us that the answer isn’t important—or even attainable. The meaning lies in the pursuit of, well, meaning.

Saramago empowers us with his narrative. He reminds us that in the face of mortality, victory is not an outcome. Victory is the fight itself. It is Senhor José taking those first bold steps into the archives, dwarfed by mountains of faceless information, to turn an index card back into a person.

I’m reminded of a favorite line from Camus’ The Plague: “And indeed it could be said that once the faintest stirring of hope became possible, the dominion of plague was ended.”

Indeed.

Unsettling Chapters: Madness

For me, the most unsettling type of literature deals with mental illness or cognitive degeneration. Internal threats are always more terrifying than those coming from outside. Self-inflicted wounds cut the deepest, and loss of cognitive faculties is perhaps worse than death.

That’s why many of the books we’ve discussed, thus far, have concerned mental illness. And it’s a topic that has fascinated many great writers. Today, I’ll look at works from three legendary authors—Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol and Lu Xun—that are each unsettling in their own way.

First, Tolstoy’s “The Notes of a Madman,” his short story based on a real-life panic attack he experienced in 1869.

What I find interesting about Tolstoy’s story is that mental illness is not a major theme, and he’s not making a grand statement about either insanity or the health care industry. Rather, his story is describing what we today know as depression and dissociation. It’s interesting to read a work that presages what we consider to be a modern malaise.

It’s also interesting to consider how the story would read if written today, with therapeutic language in common usage. As this story predates the official advent of psychotherapy, Tolstoy uses more everyday expressions to describe his panic attack: “At last we came up to a small house with a post beside it. The house was white, but appeared terribly melancholy to me, so much so that I was even filled with dread.”

This feeling of dread results in a dissociative moment, and ends with a suffocating awareness of death—not the narrator’s impending death, but the fact of life’s cessation. “A cold shudder ran down my back… I saw and felt the approach of death, and at the same time I felt that it ought not to exist.”

He traces this feeling back to his childhood, in which a similar fear overtook him when he was told stories of Jesus and his suffering. We now know that early childhood traumas establish patterns and plant seeds of self that often bloom as we approach middle age (the narrator is 35).

It’s easy to think of our modern anxieties as unique to our time or our culture, and yet this story reads like a contemporary work (horse-drawn carriage and candle lighting aside). In this way, and not necessarily by intention, Tolstoy reveals the universality of anxiety, depression and dissociative episodes.

Tolstoy’s brilliance is his ability to deliver his account as a first-person narrative. True, impaired characters tend to be unreliable narrators, but what is gained with this POV is the personal detail of the panic attack, which is vivid and horrifying. Tolstoy reminds us that self-awareness is common in these types of episodes, which is perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this story—not that we experience madness, but that we are fully aware of what’s happening.

Gogol took a farcical approach in his story, “The Diary of a Madman.” This is a first-person account of a Russian civil servant, Poprishchin, who winds up in an asylum.

Told in diary format, Gogol is able to develop conflict, desire and even self-description—a tricky proposition with an unreliable narrator.

Poprishchin is a low-ranking clerk who feels looked-down upon by his superiors and fails to project the same superiority over his subordinates. He is a man relegated to performing menial tasks with no sense of purpose or respect, and certainly not social status.

Here, Gogol taps into a human universal: The need for self-actualization. A sense of purpose, a belief that our work, no matter how undesirable, has a bigger meaning.

In lieu of that, Poprishchin would settle for a meaningful romantic relationship. But he’s past 40, and he pines for his boss’s beautiful, young daughter, with whom he stands no chance of notice. Eventually, Poprishchin spirals out of control. He believes he is privy to a conversation between two dogs (and that they are corresponding via letters and making fun of him). He stalks his boss’s daughter, an act which seems perfectly reasonable to him. And he is so troubled by the absence of a king in Spain that he convinces himself that he is the king of Spain. He asks, “How can a throne be vacant?… A state cannot be without a king.”

Finally, there is Lu Xun’s “A Madman’s Diary.”

The misconception some people have is that mental illness is simply a break from the commonly agreed-upon narrative of reality. But people dealing with mental distress are also living within a personal narrative that is every bit rooted in common sense and, more importantly, cause and effect as ours. What may seem disjointed to the group may seem perfectly linear to the individual.

The challenge is capturing that experience in fiction. Lu Xun employs two common devices, both of which, while effective when this story was published a century ago, would be difficult to get away with in modern literature. He starts with the voice of reason: a man introduces the diary of a friend who suffered from paranoid delusions, ostensibly for the purpose of medical research. Then we receive the voice of the narrator through a series of diary entries.

What I like about Lu Xun’s approach is that he puts us in the mind of the mentally distressed. Xun’s narrator begins with a common anxiety that others are looking at him strange, perhaps joking about him in the street and planning to harm him. Some local children laugh when they see him, and he deduces that they must have been instructed to do so from their parents.

Then, he overhears a story about a nearby village where cannibalism is still practiced. This manifests as an obsessive fear of being eaten, and soon he believes that the children, his brother and the whole of the town intend to kill him and eat his flesh. This escalates into more dire theories.

When we write about the mentally ill, there is tendency to reduce them to the “other.” Going first-person, seeing through their eyes, offers some insight, but is still limited if we meet them in what we perceive to be a static state of being (e.g. sane vs. insane). But following the narrator’s descent illuminates the insidious nature of mental illness and distress. Lu Xun does a great job of capturing that in this classic tale.

And there are certainly others we could discuss, perhaps in future installments. But for now, these are three classic takes on mental illness that have much to offer to the conversation of madness in literature.

Unsettling Chapters: The Wasp Factory

Welcome to The Wasp Factory, where by the age of 16 Frank Cauldhame has already killed three children, including his younger brother. These days the teenager passes his time killing animals on the tiny British island he shares with his father.

Other favorite activities? Long walks on the beach, going to punk-rock shows with his drunken dwarf buddy, Jamie, and gathering wasps in his elaborately engineered torture chamber.

This 1984 debut from Scottish writer Iain Banks stirred up a mess of controversy when it was initially released, and remains a dark and twisted read nearly a quarter century later.

Another great example of effective first-person POV, the narrator’s tale disorients and disturbs. No doubt, this is one of the greatest works of transgressive fiction I’ve ever read.

Like most works of suspense, the terror comes from what may happen rather than what actually happens. In this case, the novel’s tension — and greatest literary device — is Frank’s sadistic older brother, Eric.

Throughout the book, Eric, who has just escaped from a mental hospital, calls his younger brother from pay phones, each time closer to home, each time more psychotic, threatening to kill Frank upon his return. It’s a classic example of the shadow figure. We have a serial killer narrator, and he’s not even the craziest member of the cast!

Or is he…? The tension builds to a violent climax with a shocking twist that reframes the entire story. It’s the kind of ending that makes you want to go back to the beginning and read it all over again.

Parts of this post are adapted from an earlier article of mine, “Thirteen horrifying reads for Halloween,” which appeared in the Boulder Camera in 2008.

Unsettling Chapters: Lolita

When I think of what was controversial in the 1950s, I think of Elvis being filmed from the waist up. So, I went into Lolita thinking it couldn’t possibly be as scandalous as advertised nearly six decades later.

Wrong. Lolita makes To Catch a Predator seem like child’s play (so to speak). As oddly hilarious as it is disturbing, Nabakov’s classic is one of the most insightful accounts of pathology (what many refer to as Humbert’s unreliability) I’ve ever encountered, and still has the power to make the most hardened reader (i.e. me) queasy.

Reading this through the lens of a literary representation of mental illness, it’s easy to see Humbert’s source for pedophilia — his stunted sexuality from an age-appropriate childhood romance left unconsummated and forever associated with death and loss (and run-on sentences).

More subtle, though, is Humbert’s troubled conscience, which vacillates between self-awareness and self-fulfillment. Through carefully dropped hints, we realize that he is aware of Dolores’ vulnerability and her lack of interest in their adult activities. He knows what he’s doing is damaging the poor girl, but more often than not, his needs hijack his decisions.

The consequences fall squarely on the not-so-frail shoulders of 12-year-old Dolores Haze, who endures his abuse into her teen years. (Side note: Through Lolita, Nabokov paints a clear portrait of borderline personality disorder, which makes her story even more tragic.)

Still, through Humbert’s rationalizations, however twisted or self-serving, he does try to protect his stepdaughter in his own clumsy way. While his selfishness trumps all, his moments of lucid affection make him as close to sympathetic as can be (sympathetic enough that we’re rooting for him in his showdown with creepy Quilty).

What a tremendous book, and perhaps the greatest work of transgressive fiction. Nabakov’s play with language is remarkable (especially considering English was his second tongue), and the pain and desperation sweating through the pages of this novel make it timeless.

Troubling, complicated and a work of genius, this is an unsettling read for the ages.

Unsettling Chapters: Invisible Monsters

A close cousin of horror is transgressive fiction. These are novels, often dark or dystopian, that break cultural taboos for the sake of social commentary and satire. Considered to be a working-class style of literature, classical examples of transgressive literature include the Marquis de Sade, George Bataille, some work by Dostoyevsky and the Beat writers. Contemporary examples include Bret Easton Ellis and Irvine Welsh. Currently, the definitive author of transgressive fiction is Chuck Palahniuk.

I have long admired Palahniuk’s writing, both for its satire and transgressive nature, and Invisible Monsters, one of his earliest works, is considered to be among his most disturbing and poignant. It’s an endless buffet of sexual disorientation, body modification, gender dysphoria, self-mutilation, fame-mongering, familial dysfunction, violence and manufactured reality.

But at its core, Invisible Monsters is about identity. Who determines one’s identity? Who defines who or what one is or is not? This can be sexual, biological, superficial. Identity is a personal, subjective thing. It’s also one that manifests physically. For these characters, mutilation is the method of self-expression, either by accident (Brandy), by gender reconstruction surgery (Evie) and by their own hand (the narrator, Shannon).

Palahniuk exaggerates these tropes to the degree that they become fabulistic, and because of that, he had difficulty getting the book published. At the time, Palahniuk was a bit of a mystery. Here’s a book that begins with a spinning shotgun and a room on fire, and it ends with… Well, time is a relative component of Invisible Monsters, so who the hell knows where it ends!

What we’ve learned of Palahniuk in the ensuing years is that his over-the-top approach is a monstrous distortion of our culture. In this way, he teaches us the value of the grotesque in satire. Shannon is a fashion model who intentionally disfigures herself, Brandy a homosexual who uses an accident as pretense for gender reassignment surgery. These are people who tear themselves apart, and the pieces don’t quite fit when put back together again.

In life, the deepest wounds are the ones that are self-inflicted, and it is the characters’ own hand that pours in the salt.

As if the novel wasn’t surreal enough already, this summer Palahniuk released an updated version of Invisible Monsters featuring new and rearranged chapters.

And if that’s not enough to help you reach your disturbance quota, check out his collection of loosely connected stories, Haunted, one of my favorites. Full of splatterpunk thrills, it’s a bloodbath worthy of the Grand Guignol.

His 2008 novel, Snuff, is another ick-inducing read, this time taking on the world of pornography. You can read my review of it here.

Unsettling Chapters: Man in the Dark

Unsettling Chapters is a month-long celebration of dark fiction brought to you by Ensuing Chapters book blog and Transgress digital magazine. Every day through Halloween, we’ll feature reviews, discussions and recommendations of some of the most frightening books ever printed. Check back or subscribe to our feed for your daily dose of darkness.

One of my all-time favorite records is Shotgun Messiah’s Violent New Breed, a dystopic industrial-metal assault that is as much manifesto as music. What you hear within its tracks is the sound of your inner demons clawing their way out through your throat.

That’s also how I would describe the writing of Paul Auster, best known for existentialist works such as The Invention of Solitude, Travels in the Scriptorium and The New York Trilogy. These grim tomes remind us that it is not the dark we are afraid of, but rather being left alone inside our own heads, which run riot in the small hours of night.

Which brings us to 2008’s Man in the Dark.

In this short novel, aging writer August Brill struggles with insomnia and attempts to lull himself to sleep by creating a story about a man named Owen Brick. It’s a dystopian tale of senseless war and a fractured America, which provides an alternate history to 9/11. The narrative of Man in the Dark shifts between Brill’s nocturnal counterfactuals and the despair of his waking existence. Recently widowed, he shares a house with his daughter and granddaughter (also recently widowed, in a manner of speaking).

The despair deepens as the source of the familial insomnia is revealed.

Despite being written in the first-person, Man in the Dark has the texture of a third-person narrative. Auster balances the two narratives (the waking and the counterfactual) along with interactions with other family members that expand plot points and keep us engaged in the story without focusing on the singular event driving this piece.

And of course, the fictional narrative within the narrative allows Brill to reveal insights into his life without the bias or sentimentality of confession. He uses Owen Brick as a stand-in for his own life.

When the climax comes, it feels inevitable. Auster achieves this result not with a clever twist (although there is an affecting shock at the end) but through the groundwork he lays throughout the novel. He transforms a simple first-person narrative into something more complex and complete, much as a reader would expect from a multi-character, third-person POV.

Most important for our purposes, Auster has penned a haunting work that reminds us that there is only one thing to fear in the dark—our own mind.

I recommend that you devour this book with Violent New Breed playing in the background.

And let those inner demons do their worst.