Anyone who has spent an hour on the couch wallowing in self-pity knows that it can feel good to feel bad. Your dive into dysphoria might start with anything from passing irritation to a genuine blow. From there, you sink into the cushions, urging yourself more deeply into the recesses of despair. As your dejection grows, other bad feelings intrude. Anger at people who have slighted you. Embarrassment, as you replay humiliating conversations in your mind. Shame, because instead of doing anything to solve your problems, you are lying around, indulging yourself.
Taking pleasure in negative emotions might seem morally suspect or maladaptive, a case of pointless narcissism. Such self-willed agony, though, has its element of delight. Giving in to bad moods can clarify features of the external world, as when our anger alerts us to the presence of injustice. Or it can lead to catharsis, leaving us in brighter spirits than when we began. In succumbing to our stormy feelings, we give vent to ordinarily proscribed thoughts. The sense of power is delicious, even if we’re only punishing ourselves.
As you fling yourself on the furniture, why not languish with a book in hand? After all, art is the domain where dark emotions, and the insights they make possible, are most powerfully explored. When we peek through our fingers at a slasher film, or wince at a sitcom crammed with cringe, or hum along to a mournful aria, aversive feelings are transmuted into aesthetic pleasure. Art that makes us feel “bad” allows us to explore rage, shame, and other destructive passions within the safety of our imagination. And so, all things considered, I am on the side of wallowing. It is a risky but vital path to knowledge: a way of exploring what we fear and what we value.
What follows is a list of books that submerge us in ugly feelings. These titles affirm that marinating in negativity can be a source of glee. And in yielding to irritation, contempt, or indecision—or any of the psychological states represented on this list—we might learn something about the depths we contain.
Against Nature, by Joris-Karl Huysmans
Huysmans’ novel is about what happens when we surrender entirely to sensation. In it, a sickly aristocrat, Jean des Esseintes, retreats to his silk-lined rooms, removing himself from the world so that he can plunge into reverie and aesthetic intoxication. Plagued by ennui, he wallows—but in style. He gorges on literature and art, inhales homemade perfumes, strokes animal skins, and decks his rooms with tropical flowers. As his health weakens further, he meditates on his eccentric sexual biography. When his doctor recommends returning to Paris to lead a “normal life,” he snaps: “But I just don’t enjoy the pleasures other people enjoy!” In the novel’s most famous scene, he encrusts a tortoise’s shell with gems. The burdened animal dies on the carpet. The novel’s preference for the artificial over the natural, imagination over reality, excess over moderation, made it a sensation across Europe when it was published, acclaimed in some corners and despised in others. It was immediately recognizable to Oscar Wilde’s readers as the poisonous “yellow book” that corrupts Dorian Gray. Against Nature offers little in the way of plot; instead, we get glittering descriptions and an immersion into a strange and disturbing psychology. Read with caution, and a glass of sweet liqueur in hand.
Quicksand, by Nella Larsen
This classic of the Harlem Renaissance introduces us to the aloof and beautiful Helga Crane. No matter where Helga finds herself—teaching in a southern vocational school committed to racial uplift; strolling aimlessly around Chicago and Copenhagen; working as a secretary in Harlem—she is bored, exasperated, and perpetually constricted. “Existence in America,” she thinks, “even in Harlem, was for Negroes too cramped.” There is no place for Helga and her love of beauty or her desire for leisured comfort. Her habit of compulsive walking provides no relief: In one scene, as she strides agitatedly down a city street, a gust of wind tosses her into the gutter. Helga’s constant irritation is a response to a hostile environment, one filled with bad smells, shabby surroundings, and the indignities of racial subordination. The literary critic Sianne Ngai, whose 2005 book, Ugly Feelings, helped inspire this list, points out that Larsen packs the novel with language referring to sores, abrasions, and other maladies of the skin. Helga’s own skin narrows her possibilities, and so she experiences life itself as a surface-level irritant. Larsen’s reputation rests on two slim and intense works: Quicksand and Passing (1929), the latter recently adapted into a film by Rebecca Hall. Out of the anxieties of the color line, Larsen made confident art.
Sula, by Toni Morrison
Morrison’s second novel examines the rivalrous friendship between two women in a small Ohio town: Nel Wright and Sula Peace. As children, they are intimate friends who share a guilty secret. But when Sula returns home after a decade’s absence—glamorous in high heels, picking her way through bird excrement as robins fall dead out of the sky around her (a sign of the cosmic disruption she ushers in)—everything has changed. Nel is now a conventional wife and mother. Sula, by contrast, becomes the community’s scapegoat. Beautiful, sensual, and worldly, Sula is everything Nel is not. And when she begins to pursue Nel’s husband, Morrison’s study in contrasts becomes a tale of venomous envy. Nel and the other townswomen shun Sula, staging a rebellion against this shadowy feminine archetype. But Sula’s isolation only makes her more compelling. Although the other women condemn her, they need her: Without Sula to admire and scorn, the community ceases to function. Surreal and mythic, Sula presents Morrison at her most strange and powerful.
Woodcutters, by Thomas Bernhard
Has there ever been an author more rancorous, bitter, and misanthropic than Thomas Bernhard? A typical Bernhard novel is an extended rant, usually delivered as one long, unbroken paragraph, in which a loner—his narrators are a gallery of cranks and seething malcontents—lambastes the stupidity of the people around him and the falseness of society at large. If you are drawn to narrators who are not merely “unreliable” but prone to exaggeration and insult, Bernhard is your man. Woodcutters is his attack on the art world and its pretensions. At a midnight dinner party in Vienna, as actors, writers, and other creative types drink and gossip, the narrator, an unnamed author, observes the proceedings from an armchair. Outwardly, he is silent and sullen. Inwardly, he vents a spewing tirade against the scene he finds himself trapped in, heaping scorn on the inanity of the party guests and the mediocrity of the city’s beloved artistic institutions. Initially banned in Austria after a libel suit (brought by a composer who recognized himself in one of the book’s most pathetic characters), Woodcutters is one of Bernhard’s most engrossing and hilarious productions; his acidity provides an antidote to some of literature’s more blandly “relatable” figures. His characters embody our base impulses, but in such an extreme form that identifying with them is all but impossible.
Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D. H. Lawrence, by Geoff Dyer
The best time to yield to bad feelings is when you are urgently supposed to be doing something else. Procrastination sharpens the exquisite agony. As we fritter away hour after precious hour, a heady brew of shame, inadequacy, anxiety, and fear simmers. Meanwhile, deadlines dissolve into irrelevance, the bloom of youth fades to wrinkled pallor, and we slide ever faster toward death. Yet procrastination, Dyer knows, is at root a comic phenomenon, proof of humankind’s frailty and stubborn resolve to set goals we cannot meet. The premise of Out of Sheer Rage is this: Dyer has pledged to write, in his words, a “sober, academic study” of D. H. Lawrence. He has compiled notes and photographs, visited estates, and pored over biographies. But he simply cannot write the book. He follows Lawrence’s trail from the mining towns of England to Oaxaca, Mexico, griping all the while and rejecting dream destinations such as Paris, Rome, and Greek islands as bad places to get any work done. Essayistic digressions and witty self-deprecation absorb the reader in an unusual blend of memoir, travel writing, and literary criticism. Dyer’s book is a study, and an implicit defense, of dithering. His passivity helps him get inside Lawrence’s head: Instead of imposing an argument from above, he lets the visionary (and slightly mad) author take him for a journey. Through torturous laziness, Dyer forges a reckoning with Lawrence that seems destined to outlast the productions of many industrious scholars.
The Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante
Ferrante’s genius resides in her marriage of high literature and soap opera. The intelligence of her writing—the sharply realized characters, the sensual prose, the clear-eyed view of how material constraints deform human potential—is unmistakable. By combining such keen discernment with plots that boil at a ceaselessly high emotional pitch, she has won a global audience. Unlike her sprawling Neapolitan novels, which sought to capture an entire way of life in mid-century Naples, The Days of Abandonment is the compressed tale of one woman’s breakdown. One day, her husband of 15 years announces that he is leaving her. She shouts, weeps, and rages. She smashes a wine bottle while cooking, and the shards of glass in the pasta sauce leave her husband spitting up blood. When, months later, she spies him walking with his young lover, she hurls him to the ground, ripping his shirt to shreds. Her ire envelops everything around her, and her household sinks into chaos: Her son gets sick, the bedsheets are ruined, the dog dies. At times, this story of love gone wrong rivals Wuthering Heights for sheer sadistic intensity. But Ferrante’s account of a woman sick with anger, her existence crumbling around her, is entirely her own. Admirably translated by Ann Goldstein, The Days of Abandonment is a propulsive story of female rage.
Sontag’s diaries, edited by her son, David Rieff, reveal that this more-than-ordinary woman suffered from a more-than-ordinary unhappiness. Her talents suit the diary form: As an essayist, she was always aphoristic, and these volumes are filled with provocative fragments about art, sex, and more. Also on display is her penchant for list-making: words she likes, films she has seen, books she wants to read. Other lists are more brooding. She mercilessly catalogs her faults, habits, and defects. Sontag saw her identity as a project, something to be perpetually revised and expanded. Relentlessly self-critical, she longs for rebirth and transformation in entry after entry. As early as age 15, she writes, “I shall not be easy with myself.” Older and in the throes of a bitter romantic disappointment, she declares, “Let it hurt, let it hurt.” That impulse to “let it hurt” can be seen not just in her private life but also in her public career: staging Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War; reckoning in her essays with sadism, fascism, and scores of melancholy male European writers. The diaries show the pain behind Sontag’s self-fashioning. Her aspiration to read everything, see everything, and know everything emanated, at least in part, from a revolt against her own limitations.
Chemistry, by Weike Wang
Wang’s debut novel tracks a young unnamed woman mired in indecision. The industrious daughter of Chinese immigrants, she is nearing the end of her Ph.D. in chemistry when her boyfriend proposes to her. She freezes. She cannot bring herself to give an answer to this all-but-perfect man, who is idealized in the story as brilliant, sweet, and patient. Nor can she summon the will to finish her degree. As her relationship stalls and sputters, and she awaits an intellectual breakthrough that may never come, she wallows in uncertainty, unable to move forward. (Wang’s narration is in present tense, a choice that underscores the heroine’s stasis.) Her passivity is self-destructive. The choices she refuses to make are made for her: Her program expels her, and her boyfriend moves to Ohio for a job. In refusing to act, however, she finds a new self coming into view. Her paralysis allows her to throw off the yoke of parental pressure and make room for her own desires. The result is an appealing coming-of-age story. And while the “chemistry” of the novel’s title refers to a discipline in which the transformation of substances is a key subject, above all it refers to matters of the heart.
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