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?