Posted on September 13, 2015
A few years ago I went through a particularly tough summer of reading when my book list ran into a series of super disturbing, ultra downers. It went a little something like this:
- Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. The only book ever to make me actually hate its author.
- Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
- Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
- Children of Men by P. D. James
- The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffennegger.
- 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
Needless to say I was in a bleak, suicidal state by the time September rolled around. I can’t remember which book came along to save my life, but in my memory it is Ready Player One though it could have been 11-22-63. In any case, the drug that put me into a stupor was also the thing that pulled me out of it.
What all these books have in common is a downer ending that comes right before the story’s true resolution (which is not provided by the author). Except for Time Traveler’s Wife which is a nearly perfect novel that’s just very, very sad, these books seem maliciously willing to drag you down for no other reason than they like you better down there.
1Q84 never seemed to be about anything and then it just stopped and Never Let Me Go was so disturbing that I have blocked any real memory of it.
Oryx and Crake and Children of Men are just bleak indictments of mankind that have nothing at the end to make you feel like maybe there’s a little hope out there.
And I hated Dark Places so much that I swore an oath to never read another Gillian Flynn novel. I ended up breaking this oath with Gone Girl because people wouldn’t stop asking me if I had read it. And yes I hated it even more than Dark Places and now I’m doubled down on my promise to never read her again.
So what does that have to do with Wolf in White Van and the Southern Reach Trilogy? Well, I’m really just setting the bar very high for downbeat books that have no definitive resolution before I rain high praise on these two stories.
Basically, I’m saying that if I like these books even though I hate this type of book with every fiber of my being then everyone should like these books.
Wolf In White Van is a mystery from page one, sentence one. You never really even know what the story is about until you reach the last page. But it’s written so well and constructed with such meticulous ship-in-a-bottle detail that you wish it would never end. Considering the lyrical style of the prose, it makes perfect sense that the author, John Darnielle, is the primary member of the band Mountain Goats.
The Southern Reach Trilogy defies description so I’m not even going to try except to say that a hole has opened up in reality on the west coast of the United States and is gradually expanding, replacing our world with something else, something alien and different.
That’s the elevator pitch but that is definitely not what the story is about. Instead, it’s about the people who are trying to deal with the invasion and how the mysteries of “Area X” affect them.
Neither of these stories has any answers for you, nor do they lead up to satisfying conclusions that tie everything up in a nice bow. These are the kinds of stories that leave you thinking. You’ll dream about them a week or so after you finish reading them. Stray thoughts from Area X will invade your train of thought in meetings. That possible meanings of that long trip down the hallway to the parents’ bedroom in Wolf will sneak into your consciousness every time you turn down a certain corridor at work.
You will finish them but they will never be finished with you.