One kind of depressing story is the personal tragedy. Through the events of the fiction, horrible thiThere are different kinds of depressing stories.
One kind of depressing story is the personal tragedy. Through the events of the fiction, horrible things befall the characters, allowing you to experience that painful journey with them. Think Romeo and Juliet, Moby Dick, Winter's Bone, or The Gashlycrumb Tinies.
That sort of thing is a little bit depressing. But it's not that bad.
Then, there's tragedy that points to a systemic flaw in humanity, or human culture. Horrible things happen to (or because of) the characters, and we see how these flaws are a consequence of the culture around these characters. Society is the catalyst for tragedy and horror, and without changing an entire society, these tragedies will continue to take place. Think Requiem for a Dream, Blood Meridian, The Yellow Wallpaper, or The Wire.
These stories are more deeply depressing, because the story--and the horror--aren't over at the end of the book. The true villain is ourselves, and these books promise that the tragedy will continue. These books force us to confront something hard about what it means to be human. But, I would argue these books leave a little room for hope that people will evolve, and these tragedies could eventually be overcome.
And then there's this fucking book, The Waves.
The Waves is an experimental novel with six protagonists, and in 250 pages you travel with these characters from childhood to old age. You see the way these people change (and don't change), how they come together and grow apart, and how they experience the passage of time, and the final section of the book is a long meditation on death, life, and the meaning of story.
This book is a lot of things, but among them, this book is a contemplation of the smallness and shortness of human life. Of how quickly we become old. Of how few paths we have time to explore in just seventy or eighty years. Of how narrow the individual human experience truly is, and how fast we move down that narrowing path.
This book, then, feels least hopeful of all, because we are all mortal, and the few moments of our lives are ticking by, at a rate that never slows, but often feels like it is accelerating. With the book structured so that we check in on the characters periodically over the course of their entire lives, it's easy to reflect on how quickly youth passes, how quickly humans begin feeling the effects of age.
It is a book that confronts you with mortality simply by showing you people as they move steadily and inevitably from the beginning to the ending of the time they have.
And when you look at life from beginning to end, to what extent do people change? The characters in this book get married, have careers, have children, change in a variety of ways, but nonetheless reflect in their old ages the same values and quirks of personality they showed as children. This could be comforting, but it could also be seen as tragic, because if so much of who we are is inescapable, how much choice do we have in who we become?
I'm sure this book could be read in many other ways, and perhaps the near-death experience I had while reading it changed how I interpreted it. (Not literally while reading it. . . the book didn't attack me.) But being in the emotional place I was in while reading it, The Waves felt like the most depressing possible kind of book, one that shows you without flinching what it means to be mortal, and that asks you to contemplate all the inescapable limitations of being human. ...more