Literature for the sad
April 28, 2011 2:50 AM   Subscribe

What recommendations do you have for literature with tones and themes of sadness​/loneliness​/inadequacy​/anxiety​/perfectionism​/depression​/alienation​/dissatisfaction? (Not all in a single book, of course).

I'm currently going through a difficult period in my life and suddenly feel like reading a book. I'm looking for writing that reflect the emotions I've been having, so I can reach a sort of catharsis while at the same time enriching myself through literature. It doesn't HAVE to be literature, but I'd prefer more 'serious' works, especially ones with beautiful style. Any recommendations?
posted by parjanya to Writing & Language (50 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
The Stranger, by Camus, for a healthy dose of alienation?
posted by zachawry at 3:25 AM on April 28, 2011

I'm fairly sure Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace would give you all that in a single book (albeit a big one).
posted by maybeandroid at 3:33 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Life after God - Douglas Coupland.
posted by seanyboy at 3:44 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm a big fan of DFW and Camus, but neither of the books suggested ranks very high on the 'catharsis' scale.

Check out this earlier AskMe, and the links therein.

Or read some Vonnegut.
posted by rokusan at 3:54 AM on April 28, 2011

Anything by Carson McCullers
Anything by Franz Kafka
Anything by Lydia Davis
posted by aimeedee at 3:54 AM on April 28, 2011

This falls in the anything by Carson McCullers mention, but I was specifically going to recommend The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 4:37 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Road by Cormack McCarthy.
posted by ~Sushma~ at 4:57 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you've not read Invisible Man by Harlan Ellison, you absolutely should.
posted by drlith at 5:00 AM on April 28, 2011

Seconding Infinite Jest. It really will have it all.

The Dice Man by Luke Reinhart, if you want to laugh your way through this.

Bending the question just a little bit into the "speculative non-fiction" world, there is Alan Weisman's The World Without Us, which is about what would happen to Earth if all the humans died or disappeared. I found it strangely comforting.
posted by davidjmcgee at 5:04 AM on April 28, 2011

Hey, a chance to recommend my favorite novel! To The Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. It's basically about a family with various kinds of psychic pain going on, and the ways that humans have difficulty communicating their sadnesses to each other, so it's this rich tapestry of silent consuming dissatisfaction.

Q: How familiar is Woolf, the author, with the kinds of actual depression she's writing about; is she writing from vivid inescapable experience?
A: spoiler alert after a life dealing with depressions of various severities, she drowned herself at age 59

sadness​/loneliness​/inadequacy​/anxiety​/perfectionism​/depression​/alienation​/dissatisfaction? (Not all in a single book, of course).

Literally all of these appear in To The Lighthouse!

The harshest charge I've heard from friends who hate it is that, because so much of the book is about the characters motivations rather than their actions (and the tension that arises from having motivations which are unacted-upon), it has struck said friends as boring. I myself am gobsmacked that anyone could find it boring, as the psychic landscape it paints is so rich, and forms the basis of our acting lives. I've had a number of conversations that are basically:

Friend: "Aggh. That book. Nothing happens!"
posted by Greg Nog at 5:14 AM on April 28, 2011 [6 favorites]

Another vote for Douglas Coupland. Pretty much everything he does touches on those themes, especially loneliness.
posted by pie ninja at 5:15 AM on April 28, 2011

Just to chime in regarding Infinite Jest: I love, love, love that book, but there's a sort of playful postmodern circularity running throughout its descriptions of obsession and sadness that ever kept it from feeling cathartic to me.

One of the things I love about To The Lighthouse is that there's this constant undercurrent of "if only" that so many of the characters feel, like they know there's a thing they know they should be striving for, that something is out there that will somehow make things right, but are at a complete loss about what that would be.

Two paragraphs that I think sum up this sort of desperate "if only" are below; they refer to Mr. Ramsay, a professor of philosophy who acts as the sort of emotional villain of the whole book, but whose frustration is just as sympathetic to Woolf, even as she joshingly elides any of the actual content of his intellectual progression:

He was safe, he was restored to his privacy. He stopped to light his pipe, looked once at his wife and son in the window, and as one raises one’s eyes from a page in an express train and sees a farm, a tree, a cluster of cottages as an illustration, a confirmation of something on the printed page to which one returns, fortified, and satisfied, so without his distinguishing either his son or his wife, the sight of them fortified him and satisfied him and consecrated his effort to arrive at a perfectly clear understanding of the problem which now engaged the energies of his splendid mind.

It was a splendid mind. For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q. Here, stopping for one moment by the stone urn which held the geraniums, he saw, but now far, far away, like children picking up shells, divinely innocent and occupied with little trifles at their feet and somehow entirely defenceless against a doom which he perceived, his wife and son, together, in the window. They needed his protection; he gave it them. But after Q? What comes next? After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance. Z is only reached once by one man in a generation. Still, if he could reach R it would be something. Here at least was Q. He dug his heels in at Q. Q he was sure of. Q he could demonstrate. If Q then is Q— R—. Here he knocked his pipe out, with two or three resonant taps on the handle of the urn, and proceeded. “Then R ...” He braced himself. He clenched himself.

posted by Greg Nog at 5:37 AM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Running Away and Making Love by Jean-Philippe Toussaint. Running Away, in particular, is a beautiful book. Both books follow two characters (and unnamed narrator and his girlfriend, Marie), and cover pretty much all of the themes you requested. They are slight, under 200 pages each, and exquisitely written.

I think I suggest Toussaint in almost every book thread because I adore him and he's an author not a lot of North Americans are familiar with and I think everyone should read his books. You can't go wrong with these two titles; I think they'll give you exactly what you are looking for.
posted by Felicity Rilke at 5:44 AM on April 28, 2011

Fernando Pessoa: The Book of Disquiet
posted by Mister Bijou at 5:50 AM on April 28, 2011

You are talking about my favorite mood for literature to evoke. Great question, although I'm sorry you were inspired by difficult times to post it.

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers
Brief Lives by Neil Gaiman (which may not make sense outside of the greater Sandman series, but is always a good re-read)
A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken (if a bit explicitly Christian)
Cartoon Physics by Nick Flynn (a poem)
Making Things Whole by Mark Strand (a poem)

It's not literature per se, but Nick Cave's spoken word piece, "The Secret Life of the Love Song" is a lecture on the concept of Saudade expressed in contemporary music. The concept may approximate what you are feeling.
posted by gauche at 5:59 AM on April 28, 2011

drlith, Invisible Man is by Ralph Ellison, not Harlan Ellison. However, it is a great recommendation. As is Harlan Ellison's I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream.
posted by xenophile at 6:12 AM on April 28, 2011

For most of the themes listed, but especially perfectionism and the ways it can twist a person, I recommend William Gaddis's The Recognitions.
posted by rudster at 6:20 AM on April 28, 2011

Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain.
posted by chinston at 6:20 AM on April 28, 2011

I'm not a huge fan of his work, but I was going to say Douglas Coupland too.
posted by Ted Maul at 6:23 AM on April 28, 2011

-Colin Wilson, The Outsider
-dear Lord anything by Jean Rhys (I favor Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight)
-Thomas Hardy, The Mayor Of Casterbridge (inadequacy, envy, pride, epic self-sabotage)
-John Berryman's Dream Songs (this is a good one)
-Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Terrible Sonnets" (one sample)
-TH White's Once and Future King
posted by stuck on an island at 6:24 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Margaret Atwood made an entire career out of writing about sadness​/loneliness​/inadequacy​/anxiety​/perfectionism​/depression​/alienation​/dissatisfaction. (And some irritability, repressed anger, and repressed sexuality. too.)
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 6:24 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

despite its title, Edith Wharton's House of Mirth is one of the most crushing books of all time.

(if you haven't read To the Lighthouse, though, read that first, because it is one of the best books of all time.)
posted by dizziest at 6:29 AM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

I also came in to suggest Margaret Atwood, particularly Cat's Eye. Also, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen fits your description to me, and got me through some particularly bad times.
posted by aiglet at 6:41 AM on April 28, 2011

Slightly cliched choice, but I found a lot of those themes present in Franzen's The Corrections, and they struck a real chord with my mood at the time.
posted by crocomancer at 6:43 AM on April 28, 2011

Almost anything by Herman Hesse - but I'd probably go with Peter Camenzind as that launched his bizarre literary career of characters searching for themselves.
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:46 AM on April 28, 2011

Life after God - Douglas Coupland.

Another vote for this. It's also a *lot* shorter than many of the other recommendations.
posted by DigDoug at 6:50 AM on April 28, 2011

Two very different suggestions:
"Ethan Frome" by Edith Wharton
"Under the Volcano" by Malcolm Lowry

Either will knock you flat. Both, and you may not get up.

Great books!
posted by fivesavagepalms at 6:55 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Anything Sylvia Plath (her only novel was The Bell Jar though)
posted by astapasta24 at 7:01 AM on April 28, 2011

If you want to read about loneliness and the destructive power of perfectionism, it's hard to beat Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day.
posted by zoetrope at 7:07 AM on April 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
posted by radioamy at 7:10 AM on April 28, 2011

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
posted by rabbitsnake at 7:11 AM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham
posted by timsneezed at 7:20 AM on April 28, 2011

Hunger, by Knut Hamsun
posted by TheGoodBlood at 7:21 AM on April 28, 2011

Per Petterson might fit the bill. Out Stealing Horses and especially To Siberia.
posted by doctord at 7:32 AM on April 28, 2011

Read Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami. Excellent book. Trades in issues of abandonment, loss, and listlessness with a comforting (but not condescending) tone of existential bildungsroman. Runs the gamut from unutterably melancholic to hilarious to bizarre.
posted by fifthrider at 7:41 AM on April 28, 2011

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

The very definition of crushing.
posted by aclevername at 8:24 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard tore me up when I read it--loneliness, inadequacy, depression, anxiety, dissatisfaction and alienation all in one go.

Joyce Carol Oates: We Were the Mulvaneys is about people desperately trying to give the appearance of being this perfect family when in fact they are all devastated by a Secret they are forbidden even to discuss.

One I haven't read, but am considering, that also has the themes you are looking for:

The Perks of Being a Wallflower. A shy, introspective, alienated freshman coping with sex, drugs and the suicide of a friend.
posted by misha at 8:58 AM on April 28, 2011

Michael Ondaatje- The English Patient or Anil's Ghost.

Arundhati Roy- The God of Small Things.

Anne Michaels- Fugitive Pieces.

Nth'ing Per Petterson and Virginia Woolf.
posted by questionsandanchors at 9:12 AM on April 28, 2011

Life of Pi by Yann Martel
posted by leapfrog at 9:43 AM on April 28, 2011

No mentions of The Man Without Qualities?

Also, anything by Dostoevsky.

Hard seconds for Infinite Jest, Camus, and Gaddis.

Also: Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear.

Another huge second for Hunger, by Knut Hamsum.

Steinbeck, generally.

Metamorphosis, Kafka.

And Borges.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:48 AM on April 28, 2011

Dostoevsky! Especially Notes From Underground, but also Crime & Punishment. If you haven't read him yet he seems like a stiff old Russian dead guy blathering on about victorian values and it sounds really heavy and hard; but just pick up a copy of his work at the library and read a few pages; it's almost shockingly relevant, psychologically modern, and enthralling, I promise.

Perhaps also No Exit by Sartre, if you're interested in plays- it's short and you can find it online. Well worth a read.

Lost Horizon by James Hilton! Gorgeous novel, very much about loneliness and alienation in the wake of WW2.

Villette by Charlotte Bronte. Some say it's better than Jane Eyre, and it's definitely more about loneliness. The heroine is an orphan and a foreigner struggling with unrequited love.

Til We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis. Another little-known novel, a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth. I found it deeply moving.
posted by Nixy at 10:30 AM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Jack Gilbert's poetry; my particular favorite collections are Monolithos, The Great Fires, and Refusing Heaven.

(An example, because he's just so worth it:
I Imagine the Gods

I imagine the gods saying, We will
make it up to you. We will give you
three wishes, they say. Let me see
the squirrels again, I tell them.
Let me eat some of the great hog
stuffed and roasted on its giant spit
and put out, steaming, into the winter
of my neighborhood when I was usually
too broke to afford even the hundred grams
I ate so happily walking up the cobbles,
past the Street of the Moon
and the Street of the Birdcage-Makers,
the Street of Silence and the Street
of the Little Pissing. We can give you
wisdom, they say in their rich voices.
Let me go at last to Hugette, I say,
the Algerian student with her huge eyes
who timidly invited me to her room
when I was too young and bewildered
that first year in Paris.
Let me at least fail at my life.
Think, they say patiently, we could
make you famous again. Let me fall
in love one last time, I beg them.
Teach me mortality, frighten me
into the present. Help me to find
the heft of these days. That the nights
will be full enough and my heart feral.)

The current British Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, writes in a very raw and non-lyric kind of way, as does American poet Anne Sexton.

The plays of Sarah Ruhl, particularly Melancholy Play.

I also like to listen to this poem as well ("Church of the Broken Axe Handle," by Derrick C. Brown), which is better for the performance of it and always just shatters me:
posted by myownlostrib at 11:38 AM on April 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

For huge, sweeping themes of alienation, sadness and loss, Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe. I think it's definitely not for everyone, but I read it once over ten years ago and still have whole passages memorized.
posted by frobozz at 1:35 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I really liked Mary Rakow's The Memory Room, which moves through a woman's mental collapse and the slow, slow process of pulling herself together again. it is a very beautifully tender novel.

which is something that Anne Carson also does well -- "The Glass Essay" from Glass, Irony, and God and The Beauty of the Husband are both lovely meditations on loss and desperate aloneness.

Agota Kristof's trilogy -- The Notebook/The Proof/The Third Lie -- is bleak and terrible and weirdly inspiring; it's available in a single volume and is one of my favourite books.

Marie Redonnet's early work, too -- Hotel Splendid especially, though I think that those are hard to find these days.

Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes, manages to be both deeply despairing and at the same time joyously exuberant. if you can imagine yourself charmed by rambling, nonsensical monologues it is well worth reading.

and in any list of books to do with sadness, Beckett definitely deserves mention. I think Murphy, his first novel, comes the closest to what you're after.

and some of the writers already mentioned are among my favourites: Murakami (especially Norwegian Wood), Toussaint, Lydia Davis (especially The End of the Story), and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
posted by spindle at 2:12 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ooh, this looks like the syllabus for the Modernism class I'm taking right now. You might enjoy Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, E.M. Forster's Howard's End, and Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse. I'll throw in Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier because it fits your description, but it wasn't my favorite.

All the above books explore how humans can connect, if we can connect at all.
posted by yaymukund at 3:18 PM on April 28, 2011

Michael Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs. He describes himself as a "failure," Pulitzer and all.
posted by tangaroo at 3:38 PM on April 28, 2011

Antal Szerb's Journey by Moonlight hits a number of your themes. Hungarians generally tend to be pretty good with depression/ loneliness.
posted by wandering steve at 7:57 PM on April 28, 2011

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami ...or most any of his books, really

and either Franny and Zooey or Nine Stories (or both) by J.D. Salinger

I heartily endorse previously mentioned The Road, Margaret Atwood books, and Never Let Me Go

Possibly also Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chiamanda Ngozi Adiche
posted by nile_red at 1:29 AM on May 1, 2011

On Margaret Atwood: Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood for post-apocalyptic sci-fi (with emphasis on people, relationships, melancholia), and The Blind Assassin (for not-sci-fi with emphasis on people, relationships, melancholia, and regret)
posted by nile_red at 1:33 AM on May 1, 2011

Someone mentioned King Lear above. I would recommend A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, which is a retelling of the story of Lear, set in 1979 Iowa farmland. Very good, everything you're looking for.
posted by cheshirecat718 at 5:28 PM on May 2, 2011

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