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The first time a book made me cry was when I read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. Set in Afghanistan, the story follows two friends, Amir and the son of his servant, Hussain. While the boys were thieves like children, when tragedy befalls Hussain, it is Amir’s silence that breaks their friendship.
The book tells a story about friendship, tragedy and redemption. While there were times that broke my heart, the falls in the narrative formed the basis of a meaningful story that has stayed with me. When used well, moments of sadness can turn an ordinary story into a poignant one. My problem ultimately isn’t with sad books, or even tragic endings, but rather with tales that contain tragic and inhuman tales of characters in an empty effort to make the reader feel Something.
Let’s start with a story: we are in 2017, in March. It’s spring break and I decide to spend a day reading. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara arrived from the library a few days ago and I sat down with this long novel, curled up on a sofa in the sun. Happy. Anticipating. Now I have done my research and read the blurb. The story is about four friends in New York City, and one of them has a dark and sad past. I will never forget this spring break because I will never forget how this book made me feel.
The protagonist, Jude, goes through one tragedy after another. From childhood he is subjected to such horrors that by the time he reaches adulthood and has a semblance of happiness, it is too late – he no longer wishes to live. Reading this book, I got the impression that Yanagihara pulled out newspaper clippings about horrific crimes, then lumped all the victims into one person: Jude. There were times when I read the book and had to stop because I started to shake and cry.
There are sad books, and then there are some that make you feel absolutely hopeless. The novel left me in shock. I remember a review on the cover saying that the book was “upsetting”. For days afterwards, I couldn’t get that word out of my head. Overwhelming. It barely captured the agony that this story inflicted, and yet when I read a book that does something similar – that puts a character through great amounts of pain with no hope and no end in sight, to the detriment of reader’s sanity – that’s the word I think of: upsetting.
I recently read a manga series, Banana Fish, which is related to A little life. Both feature protagonists who endure torture – literally and metaphorically – and struggle for years to make their stories end in tragedy. What I found intriguing was that during the interview, Yanagihara and Akimi Yoshida – the author of Banana fish – said they were trying to create a world where light and dark coexist. I think we’ve seen more of the latter in both, almost to the point of undoing the former.
As readers, we need to recognize the difference between sad, meaningful stories and deliberate tears. When i spoke of Banana fish and things like that, I’ve been told that the very reason these books are so powerful, so memorable, is because they’re devastating. The argument given to me was that if these books didn’t break our hearts, we wouldn’t go back again and again.
I absolutely do not agree. Every compelling story is motivated by conflict. So violence, so pain is used as a filler for a lack of conflict – which I think is the case for A little life and his sisters – then the truth is, the story is not a good one to begin with. If the only compelling aspect of a story is endless and unnecessary tragedy, then the problem isn’t that the reader is upset. The problem is, the writer has to tell a better story.
There is a plethora of tragic and meaningful stories but one where, despite the sadness the reader feels, the story unfolds in a way that makes sense. The novels of Kazuo Ishiguro are a good example. Never Let Me Go broke my heart, but it told a moving, compelling story and left me food for thought. Memories like Educated and The Copenhagen Trilogy have devastating moments that form defining moments in the lives of the characters. There are more, of course, but for that I will need a list.
In an interview, Octavia Butler, author of Kindred – now there is a difficult and tragic novel – once said that his first effort is always to tell a good story. As a reader, whatever the end of a book, I hope every story will keep this promise.