Help make me uncomfortable.
January 20, 2010 6:50 PM   Subscribe

Looking for a reading list of things that will make me productively uncomfortable. (tl;dr inside)

There is a sensation of discomfort and disorientation that I feel whenever I read an effective work of literature. I believe the sensation is caused by my being forced to face or acknowledge a contradiction in my internal belief system and/or being presented with information for which I have no pre-formed context.

Blood Meridian is one example of this. (The Road is not, for whatever reason. I think perhaps it is at heart an uncomplicated, though chilling, novel, which presses other buttons.) Alice Munro creates this sensation with almost every story I have read. Many of the stories in Winesburg, Ohio created this sensation.

In films, Werner Herzog creates a similar sensation, but I'm mostly looking for books.

These do not have to be fiction. I would enjoy a good book of philosophy or history as much as a novel. But I want that sensation. I want to be forced to consider what it is I have read, and what I think about what I have read, long after the book is done.

When I mention that I want to be uncomfortable, I should stress that the discomfort I'm seeking is not mere revulsion, disgust, or anger at having the good fellows fail. Those would be incidental factors, neither necessary nor sufficient.

Typing this question has reminded me of this passage from Spoon River Anthology:

Now I, an under-tenant of the earth, can see
That the branches of a tree
Spread no wider than its roots.
And how shall the soul of a man
Be larger than the life he has lived?

Metaphorically speaking, I hope to be recommended books that will expand the scope of my life.
posted by Nonce to Media & Arts (59 answers total) 99 users marked this as a favorite
I have experienced similar feelings when reading these books:

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
The Dark Tower series by Stephen King
posted by mmmbacon at 6:57 PM on January 20, 2010

Monogamy by Adam Phillips
Intimacies by Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear at 7:01 PM on January 20, 2010

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai.
posted by embrangled at 7:03 PM on January 20, 2010

Seconding Coetzee. I find his books intensely unpleasant. That's why I like reading them.
posted by k. at 7:08 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen R. Donaldson
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Both very effectively give you the viewpoint of a narrator who is a loathsome character, but yet done well enough that you can't really hate them. Both books made me uncomfortable, in a thought-provoking way, and were thus very worth reading. (Though I have to say I didn't actually like the Thomas Covenant books much, in terms of whether they were fun to read).
posted by forza at 7:11 PM on January 20, 2010

I'm not exactly sure of what you're trying to ask, but it reminds me of the collection of stories by Flannery O'Connor called "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

You may want to elaborate in a comment to get better answers.
posted by chicago2penn at 7:13 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

You might also try Kenzaburo Oe. He's good at describing the mental states of people in disturbing situations for which an acceptable response is not apparent even to the reader.

Also, I think that Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad) might be intended to evoke this kind of feeling—obviously lots of people like it, though I found it underwhelming myself.
posted by k. at 7:14 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Slaughter-House Five by Vonnegut
posted by mmmbacon at 7:20 PM on January 20, 2010

When I finished Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro I felt like a pile of bricks had just fallen on me. It hit me when I was done, not while reading, though, and a couple of other people I know had the same experience.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:20 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've been reading "The Invisible Man" again (Ralph Ellison) and have found it profoundly disturbing--and challenging.
posted by availablelight at 7:22 PM on January 20, 2010

I was going to suggest Alice Munro, but you beat me to it.

Andre Dubus is like this for me, as is John Updike.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:33 PM on January 20, 2010

Seconding Flannery O'Connor, too.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:34 PM on January 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'll nth Coetzee and Conrad, Diary of a Bad Year and The Nigger of the Narcissus respectively would, I think, fit your criteria.

When I was younger Crime and Punishment did this to me, not sure how I would react to reading it now.
posted by Locobot at 7:38 PM on January 20, 2010

Infinite Jest, or most anything else by David Foster Wallace.
posted by mbrubeck at 7:47 PM on January 20, 2010

Seconding Lolita.
posted by infinitewindow at 7:47 PM on January 20, 2010

Response by poster: Flannery O'Connor is one of my favorite authors, and her stories regularly inspire the reaction I'm looking for.

Thank you for the suggestions. Please continue!
posted by Nonce at 7:51 PM on January 20, 2010

Kore'eda Hirokazu's movies (specifically "Maboroshi" and "Aruitemo Aruitemo") can be like this too.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:00 PM on January 20, 2010

Seconding David Foster Wallace, particularly his short story collection Oblivion and even more particularly the story Good Old Neon.

The Selfish Gene can really make you reevaluate the nature of living things.

Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations is like acid for your wordview - it eats away all but the most numinous and unquestionable suppositions, and clarifies what sort of things those are in doing so. For a completely different kind of philosopher, try Albert Camus (the stranger, or The Myth of Sisyphus).
posted by phrontist at 8:00 PM on January 20, 2010

Flatland by Edwin A. Abbot is another good one - it's a novel about the dimensionality of space, but also about victorian social structures, and arguably just about the unexamined background assumptions that give our world meaning.
posted by phrontist at 8:01 PM on January 20, 2010

Not sure If I correctly understand your question, but Bel Canto might fit the bill.
posted by kylej at 8:14 PM on January 20, 2010

Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) is a psychology book about cognitive dissonance that made me hugely uncomfortable while reading it because it made me recognize a handful of things -- but HUGE things -- that I believe in irrationally. After that I read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, even though I was still in a deep place of discomfort, and that hit me way harder. No two books have ever made me reexamine myself more, or changed my life as much.
posted by Nattie at 8:16 PM on January 20, 2010

Some post-modern stuff: Michel Houellebecq was rather controversial. His book Platforme (French, also translated into English) deals with sex tourism and is disturbing. Atomised is also a good read, rather nihilistic. Also, Don De Lillo, White Noise.
posted by desjardins at 8:33 PM on January 20, 2010

Books I read that made me uncomfortable in the past month or so were The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch; Stoner by John Williams; and a collection of short stories by Breece D'J Pancake.

(This may reveal that what unsettles me most is man's inability to connect to others and that what I find expansive about these books--the first two especially--is the idea that the inability to connect can lead to both destructive and transcendent experiences in the twilight of life.)
posted by coffeeflavored at 8:33 PM on January 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Nightmare Alley
The Death of Ben Linder
A Scanner Darkly
posted by klangklangston at 8:40 PM on January 20, 2010

Yes, Infinite Jest took my mind to some places I wasn't expecting to go. And I'd also like to 2nd The Selfish Gene. Also some of Sartre's plays affected me this way - especially "The Flies". I bet you would get this feeling from anything by Roberto Bolaño but for me it comes through packing the hardest punch in Distant Star.
posted by crinklebat at 8:42 PM on January 20, 2010

3rding Infinite Jest and David Foster Wallace in general, god rest his soul. The combination of identification and over analysis of previously overanalyzed addictions, compulsions and depressive impulses makes it more and more uncomfortable for me. ( no less pleasurable however)
I get uncomfortable with P.G. Wodehouse sometimes though so, caveat emptor.

Other suggestions:
Gain, by Richard Powers creates a sort of itchy feeling for one's environment that's hard to pass over, afterwards. Who know's what's going to give you cancer today?

Amnesia Moon, by Johnathan Letham primarily for the shiftiness in reality that tends to linger (more powerfully than the obviously influential Phillip K. Dick) for some time.

Mutants, by Armand Marie LeRoi knowing what can go wrong in human development can be a far more haunting set of ideas ( and then you start looking for subtle defects in those around you) than the assurance that all has gone right in yours.

Haunting book that I wish I'd never read, glamorama by bret easton ellis, eugh.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 8:47 PM on January 20, 2010

Raymond Carver short stories will do the trick too.
posted by availablelight at 9:00 PM on January 20, 2010

Flannery O'Connor is one of my favorite authors, and her stories regularly inspire the reaction I'm looking for.

Try Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, if you haven't already. I don't think it's as disturbing on the surface as things like Disgrace, but it doesn't leave you with easy or good conclusions. Even the sympathetic characters are pretty reprehensible.

I agree about Never Let Me Go and Disgrace.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:01 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Geek Love.
posted by hermitosis at 9:10 PM on January 20, 2010

A Woman in Berlin made me think incredibly differently about Germans during World War II.

Dorothy Allison's Bastard out of Carolina is also pretty amazing. Haunting, indeed.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:19 PM on January 20, 2010

JG Ballard's Empire of the Sun, and the follow up, The Kindness of Women, might fit the bill. And Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird, and Steps. These books are related in my mind as being the origin stories of these artists: they both came of age during WWII, in traumatic circumstances (in Ballard's case, a prisoner of the Japanese; Kosinski spent the war hiding from the Nazis in small villages in Poland), and you see how their art was born through their horrific childhood experiences. (None of these books are strictly autobiographical, by any means.)

Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delaney, has 'disorientation' in spades; hard to explain, but to a certain type of reader, it will fascinate.
posted by Bron at 9:26 PM on January 20, 2010

Joan Didion, specifically A Book of Common Prayer or Democracy.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 9:41 PM on January 20, 2010

The Painted Bird is like a crystal that seeds a precipitate of unease, insecurity, and hopelessness in even the calmest and happiest heart.

Make sure you have some kind of happy you can go back to after you're done.
posted by Sallyfur at 9:41 PM on January 20, 2010

"The Dead," James Joyce
Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

(It's not a book, but you might want to check out the version of Our Town with Spalding Gray as the Stage Manager - it's less sentimental than other versions and goes well with Spoon River.)
posted by betweenthebars at 9:44 PM on January 20, 2010

A lot of Borges's stories do this for me, especially "The Library of Babel," "Garden of Forking Paths," "Book of Sand," and "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius."

I like how this question is the opposite to today's earlier comfort books question.
posted by grapesaresour at 9:57 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

American Gods by Neil Gaiman gave me this feeling for many nights.
posted by divabat at 10:00 PM on January 20, 2010

I just started reading Lolita and it's quite uncomfortable indeed. There's quite an acute conflict between the lovely way he describes this moment, or that girl, and the realisation that SHE'S TWELVE.
posted by twirlypen at 10:07 PM on January 20, 2010

You want discomfort engendered from being forced to integrate strange new ideas of broad and unusual scope, which may challenge, expand, or reveal hidden contradictions in your own beliefs?

I'm a huge science fiction fan, which in theory ought to be the ideal genre to satisfy your request. In practice, even serious SF books don't always have your aims in mind. Among the exceptions it's hard to pick out specific works which challenge or expand your beliefs without knowing more about what the current state of your internal belief system is. Stephen Baxter's "Manifold" series fits your description best for me and a few other readers of it I've talked to. A less dark (almost polar opposite) possibility might be Spider Robinson's books, particularly the "Mindkiller"/"Time Pressure"/"Lifehouse" trilogy or the Callahan series.
posted by roystgnr at 10:16 PM on January 20, 2010

Maybe Conrad's The Secret Agent will fit.

And any Kafka (being a major influence in Coetzee and all…)

Also Richard Yate's book of stories Eleven Kinds of Solitude does just that. I haven't read his novels, but it wouldn't surprise me if they treaded the same territory.

And the lovely lovely Book of Disquietude by Fernando Pessoa which is an altogether different thing.

The last one I can think of today: Stoner, by John Williams.
posted by MrMisterio at 10:29 PM on January 20, 2010

I hesitate to recommend it because of its length but I still think about and refer back to 2666 by Roberto Bolano. Bolano wanted his family to release the novel as four separate books but I appreciated reading it in its entirety. Part III, in particular, is hard to stomach. As is clear from the disparity in the ratings given to the book on Amazon, love it or hate it, it evokes a lot of passion.

Also, I second Geek Love. I read it right after giving birth so it could have been the hormones but the contrast between the incredibly disturbing subject matter and the wonderful writing and storytelling made me physically squirm more than once.
posted by notcomputersavvy06 at 11:30 PM on January 20, 2010

Everybody needs a little Russell Hoban in their lives.

""Early on in my childhood I sensed the thinness of reality and I became terrified of what might be on the other side of the membrane: I imagined a ceaseless becoming that swallowed up everything...Each of us is the forward point of a procession stretching back into the darkness. And even within oneself, every moment is a self that dies: the road to each day's midnight is littered with corpses and all of them whispering.""

Angelica's Grotto
My Tango With Barbara Strozzi
Riddley Walker
Bat Tattoo
Come Dance With Me
posted by aquafortis at 11:31 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Between Life and Death, by Nathalie Saurraute

oh, and

Story of the Eye, by Georges Bataille--most fucked up great book ever?
Oh. My. Goodness.

You should also hit some Antonin Artaud (The Theater and its Double?) and maybe Daniel Paul Schreber's Memoirs of my Nervous Illness
posted by Joseph Gurl at 1:15 AM on January 21, 2010

And if philo works, PLEASE read A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Indispensable and life-changing in incredible and unpredictable ways (and Schreber, Bataille, and Artaud all make key appearances, along with Carlos Castaneda and soooo many others).
posted by Joseph Gurl at 1:17 AM on January 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

The short story Guts by Chuck Palahniuk. Though I most recommend listening to a recording of him reading it.
posted by haveanicesummer at 7:20 AM on January 21, 2010

Geek Love++

I also second the JG Ballard recommendation- you can pretty much run the entire gamut of discomfort with his works.
posted by mkultra at 7:40 AM on January 21, 2010

Doxo Wox
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:56 AM on January 21, 2010

What is Doxo Wox? A poetry collection? Who wrote it?

(I'm tempted to say it makes as almost as little sense as Deleuze & Guattari, but if it's poetry it may deserve a break in that regard, or a more careful reading.)
posted by k. at 10:35 AM on January 21, 2010

Oh, an intriguing mystery: Doxo Wox seems to be the work of someone who hides behind the pseudonym Toadex Hobogrammathon. This person also wrote the equally nonsensical Doxo Wox itself has virtually no links from the rest of the internet.
posted by k. at 11:08 AM on January 21, 2010

Has Catch-22 been mentioned yet? I'd say it's one of the most uncomfortable and amazing reading experiences ever.

Philip Roth is also quite good at this:
American Pastoral

Also, another vote for Kafka, the master of alienation. Impossible to read "In the Penal Colony", "The Judgment", or my personal favorite, "A Hunger Artist", without feeling most disturbed.
posted by bookgirl18 at 11:13 AM on January 21, 2010

Will Self.
posted by scribbler at 12:40 PM on January 21, 2010

Pretty much anything by Hubert Selby Jr.
posted by herbaliser at 2:06 PM on January 21, 2010

Though I only read it when I was perhaps 14, Not wanted on the Voyage by Timothy Findley really shook me up when I read it.
posted by Alex404 at 2:10 PM on January 21, 2010

What is Doxo Wox? A poetry collection? Who wrote it?...if it's poetry it may deserve a break in that regard, or a more careful reading.

Yes. Must categorize; only then can decide how to judge.

Toadex wrote Name: a novel as well, and his work is definitely not just nonsense (although it definitely includes plenty!). I've followed it since before I joined here, and even corresponded with him for a minute back in 2000 or so. He knows a lot about music, too.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 3:23 PM on January 21, 2010

Flowers for Algernon was the first book that ever made me feel this way (but yeah, I was really young at the time, so now might not fit the bill).

Grendel by John Gardner is another one that I think might be along the lines of what you're looking for.

I also recently listened to a short story which was read as part of This American Life on Chicago Public Radio: "The Man in the Well" by Ira Sher. Very haunting (although I'm not sure if you can listen to it for free anymore).
posted by mingodingo at 3:26 PM on January 21, 2010

First, I recommend the list Books That Will Induce A Mindfuck.

Second, this is a possibly over-lengthy list of stuff that has worked for me but may not work for you:

- Anything by Iain Banks, but particularly The Wasp Factory. The Culture novels got me thinking about political ideology, utopianism when I was a young teen and just wanted loads of explosions and sexy nude bits.
- The City & The City by China Mieville
- The Collected Short Stories of JG Ballard blew my mind when I got it for my sixteenth birthday and it's coloured the way I've read everything ever since.
- Lanark by Alaisdair Gray
- Possibly House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski, if you don't find it affected
- Anything by Philip K. Dick, as has been mentioned
- Any plays by Sarah Kane, particularly Blasted. Blasted is genuinely the most harrowing thing I have ever read. I thought I was fairly jaded and unshockable when I read it. I have never felt as viscerally as uncomfortable as I have when reading another book or play.
- Any plays by Edward Bond, particularly Lear.
- Any plays by Mark Ravenhill, particulary Shopping and Fucking
- V by Tony Harrison (this is actually a long poem, available online I believe)
- The Master & Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. I cannot recommend this enough.

I read a lot of medieval literature during the course of my former studies. I've got a hard-on for science fiction, slipstream fiction, fantasy, surrealism, anything that blows my mind and forces me to look at the world from a different angle-- and nothing blows my mind as hard as medieval literature blows my mind. There's something about seeing a culture/literature which is half-alien, half sort-of familiar. It pauses me, it makes me think about how transient things which we take for granted (culture, language, sociological norms, religion) are subject to change.

Medieval lit:

- Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. There's a new translation out by Peter Ackroyd which is actually really good if a bit tinny and weird in places. Anyway, TCT as a whole are surprisingly funny and readable.

- Piers Plowman by William Langland. THIS IS THE NUMBER ONE BOOK THAT WILL INDUCE A MINDFUCK. Late fourteen century, epic, epic poem. This consumed a year of my life at university, fucking over my mind and eventually my dissertation. It's unique. Epic vision quest that begins on some hills in Malvern and ends up meeting a really trippy Jesus. It's possibly too trippy to be of use, since anyone that reads it will require not only a translation into modern English but also a really good glossary and footnotes.

- Medieval plays. Tony Harrison's translations are really good.

- The Book of Margary Kempe.

I believe the sensation is caused by my being forced to face or acknowledge a contradiction in my internal belief system and/or being presented with information for which I have no pre-formed context.

I don't have any idea of your politics, but perhaps reading some books from a political tradition that is radically outside your own might be useful? If you class yourself as a centrist, read something from the far right or the hard left. If you're a left-winger and a radical, maybe something from a different tradition of radicalism? I'm a socialist and I know my best political discussions are with friends from radical traditions other than socialism.


- Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States
- Chris Harman's A People's History of the World (I've got my issues with Harman but it's a really good read)
- Eric Hobsbawm's Age Of... series are brilliant, brilliant history books
- Gender Trouble by Judith Butler made me re-think how I approached gender and threw up some questions and contradictions I still haven't resolved in my own head. Be warned it's incredibly slow-going reading, though. She does not eschew obfuscation.
- Marx. Trotsky. Lenin. Surprisingly readable, if not a barrel of laughs.
- Orientalism by Edward Said
- Madness and Civilisation by Foucault
- Gramsci like woah. Prison Notebooks.
- Anything else that gets taught on 'Critical Theory / Cultural Studies / Sociology' courses: Fanon, Delueze, Spivak, Habermas, Baudrillard, Guy Debord. Some of it'll be total unspeakable bunkum but it'll certainly make you feel uncomfortable
- If you read Baudrillard to someone while they're stoned you may make them think they don't exist
- Verbal Hygiene by Deborah Cameron was the most important book I read during my degree, it's a must-read if you've got any interest at all in the way that language (the idea of 'good' language and accents and 'bad' language) is taught or discussed or written about in the media. It totally changed the way I looked at the entire English language(s).
- As above, David Crystal's The Stories Of English.

I'm apologise if I'm just repeating stuff you already know and dislike.

Also, this is a worthwhile project, I salute you. It's reminded me I need to start reading outside my own comfort zone again. (For starters, nearly everything on my list is Anglophone and Western, which is troubling.)
posted by somergames at 4:21 PM on January 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

I really meant to add but didn't: The Invisibles and The Filth by Grant Morrison.
posted by somergames at 4:26 PM on January 21, 2010

Posting to nth the following:

Grant Morrison's the Invisibles and the Filth
Mark Danielwski's House of Leaves
Foucault's Madness and Civilisation
Ballard's Empire of the Sun
Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead also disturbed me, but I'm not sure that you're looking for that kind of discomfort.
posted by nihraguk at 7:54 PM on January 21, 2010

For philosophy, try Emil Cioran, Joseph de Maistre and John Gray's Straw Dogs.

Always keep Voltaire and Bierce by your bedside for smaller bursts of (profoundly enjoyable) discomfort.

For everyday reading, try:

Michael Gira's The Consumer
Tadeusz Borowski's This Way For The Gas, Ladies And Gentlemen
George R. Stewart's Earth Abides
The Stories Of Paul Bowles
Ted Chiang's Stories Of Your Life And Others
Bohumil Hrabal's Too Loud A Solitude
posted by turgid dahlia at 6:45 AM on January 23, 2010

Tim Wise's collection of essays, Speaking Treason Fluently, is an exercise of slowly feeling your stomach sink as you are forced to think deeply about how thoroughly white privilege affects the way all of us view the world.
posted by Ash3000 at 6:15 PM on January 23, 2010

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