“’I don’t like happy people,’ Andrew said.” —Tao Lin, Eeeee Eee Eeeee
Are you looking for a light summer read to perfectly complement a languorous afternoon on the beach working on your tan? Then this list probably isn’t a great fit.
Just kidding. Sort of. You can read these books on the beach, but only if you’re okay with having your worldview challenged, undermined, or maybe—if you’re already overflowing with existential angst—reaffirmed. Here is a top-ten list of books that are as bleak and depressing as they are captivating:
- The Stranger by Albert Camus: You probably knew this was going to be on here. But in case you haven’t delved into the literary treasure-trove of emotional vacancy that is existentialism, this is where you start. The Stranger chronicles the absurd adventures of a man named Meursault who, after indifferently attending his mother’s funeral, kills a man on the beach for no apparent reason, and then spends time being apathetic in prison before emotionlessly accepting his execution. This twentieth-century French novel is a modern classic, and how could it not be with an opening like “Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” If that doesn’t hook you instantly, I don’t know what will.
- Eeeee Eee Eeee by Tao Lin: If you’ve been looking up book suggestions in the hopes that you’d stumble upon one about humans, a dolphin, a bear, a moose, an alien, and the President of the United States of America—who may or may not be an alien—then I am happy to tell you the search is over. Tao Lin is a controversial and polarizing writer known for his minimalistic, hyper-realistic brand of post-post modernism (or whatever—I don’t know how many post-modernisms deep we are at this point) but one thing that is not controversial is that any book with a line like “’Fine,’ the bear said, ‘Life is stupid anyway’” is probably awesome. Lin’s novel not only posits a variety of philosophical truths (“There is a oneness in the world because of consciousness and this oneness—what does it want, mostly. To avoid pain and suffering, seek pleasure and happiness”) but has no regard whatsoever for logic or congruence (“The dolphin drags Elijah Woods’ corpse into a cave and sits on it.”) The characters in Lin’s 2007 novel are lonely, impulsive, bored, and utterly inconsolable. If you are also all of those things, this book will make you feel somewhat better about it.
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison: Ellison’s classic novel, published in 1952, opens with the vivid scene of a man who lives underground burning 1,369 light bulbs simultaneously while listening to Louie Armstrong’s “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue” on a phonograph. The rest of the novel is filled with sobering meditations on Black identity, existentialism, Marxism, and symbolism so careful and deliberate it makes T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland look like a nursery rhyme.
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: You may have read this in high school, but if not, you need to read it right now. Right this minute. Right now. I’ll wait. Okay, now that you’re done I’m sure we can agree Sylvia Plath’s only novel about a girl at a fancy liberal arts school is probably the most chillingly accurate portrayal of a sudden, insidious onslaught of insanity in the midst of “the greatest time of your life” to date. For anyone who has peered up at the world from under the disorienting lens of the bell jar, Esther Greenwood is the hero you’ve been waiting for, even if she may not be able to save herself.
- Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka: You go to sleep a man and wake up a giant gross insect and now your whole life sucks. It sucked before, but it extra-sucks now. If you think you’re having a bad day, try being Gregor Samsa.
- The Informers by Bret Easton Ellis: This isn’t a novel, but ia collection of short stories linked through occasionally recurrent characters and settings and similarly shallow problems. All the stories are set in California where a cast of beautiful wealthy people have no idea what they’re upset about. They stave the loneliness, emptiness, and inherent meaningless of their own existence through various methods of self-medication ranging from alcohol to violent sex to recreational pills and other drugs, more often than not opting for a mixture of all three. But beneath the superficial surface of Ellis’ stories lies a terrifying question large enough to haunt any reader hours after closing the cover: if those who have everything can’t find happiness, what in the world does it take?
- Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms by Daniil Kharms: Daniil Kharms doesn’t care what you think about “good” literature. He also doesn’t really care what he thinks about “good” literature. All Daniil Kharms wants to do is try something new and say absurd things and point out that the world makes no sense but parts of it are kind of funny but who cares. Here is a good example of Daniil Kharms thinking things make no sense but are also funny but also who cares:
The Red-Haired Man
There was a red-haired man who had no eyes or ears.
Neither did he have any hair, so he was called red-haired theoretically.
He couldn’t speak, since he didn’t have a mouth. Neither did he have a nose.
He didn’t even have any arms or legs. He had no stomach and he had no back and he had no spine and he had no innards whatsoever. He had nothing at all.
Therefore there’s no knowing whom we are even talking about.
In fact it’s better that we don’t say any more about him.
- A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess: The dialect in this one is a bit hard to follow at first but you quickly catch on to the zany language of the world Alex and his “droogs” inhabit and terrorize. After watching Alex and his friends drink milk laced with weird clinical-sounding drugs, assault various innocent bystanders, and later receive retribution that seems a bit inhumane even when considering the extent of Alex’s “ultra-violent” misdeeds, your senses of morality and justice are entirely shot. So if you feel like losing all faith in humanity’s efforts to regulate itself, this is a fun one, I guess.
- Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby, Jr.: Drugs and sadness and people who are really truly trying their best. The end.
- The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara by Frank O’Hara: Okay, now that you’re really sad from thinking about how life is absurd and nothing matters, you need something to cleanse your pallet a little. Read “As Planned,” or “For Grace, After a Party,” or “Adieu to Norman, Bon-Jour to Joan and Jean Paul,” or actually all of Frank O’Hara’s poems, and you’ll feel a little better. He’s like the drunk guy at the party who, instead of getting creepy and handsy with you, just gushes about how great you look and how he wishes you hung out more sober.
So if you want to question the very nature of existence all summer, look some of those titles up. If not, there is absolutely no shame in picking up a Jodi Picoult novel and calling it a day. As long as it’s not Twilight, I’m sure no one on the beach will judge you for whatever you choose.
Kate Monica is a senior English major at UConn and the Poetry Editor for the Long River Review.