Incoherent Madness: Writing about and within Insanity

Not that kind of madness

There’s something alluring about reading or writing about a character going insane or under the influence of drugs. Someone so lost inside their own minds that hippos prance across their dreams, leaves of fall graceful as ballerina marsupials in the stream of never going home.

Wait, what?

I honestly have been considering the adventures of protagonists who are less with us mentally than physically. Sometimes, because the POV characters are snorting some serious stuff or injecting bee venom into their veins, their sentences come out uneven with the universe like gut-flavored Jell-O. Stories written in stream-of-conscious style are difficult enough to read without the character being so overwhelmingly addled.

Take for example Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (spoilers ahead). When not describing what shampoo he uses and criticizing business card fonts, Patrick Bateman likes to violently murder people. Mostly hobos and prostitutes, though, so it’s okay. Toward the end of the novel, Patrick discovers he may not have killed anyone, simply having hallucinated the murders. Of course in the film this is hinted at far more heavily. In the book, reality is up in the air. Do you believe Bateman has murdered people or simply suffering gory delusions?

This is what happens when you shake the ketchup bottle too fiercely.

The unreliable narrator lends a beautiful obscurity to events in a story. Once you realize he is a liar, you question everything you’ve told him up to this point. A lot of writers use this vagueness– this unreliable because of insanity as a plot device that can either seem awesome or like a joke. A good example of how the unreliable narrator can completely change the outcome of the novel is in Fight Club, but I won’t talk about that because I’m not supposed to.

When the character is not insane, he may simply be on drugs while writing it. Imagine Alan Ginsberg’s poetry in prose form. Imagine Naked Lunch. If not the character himself, then perhaps the author is on drugs or drowning in alcohol. And while many writers swear by their personal “muses,” I find much of this incoherent and pointless.

Sometimes, an author can be utterly sober and make no sense. I’m not a huge fan of Joyce and find him overrated, so I’m not afraid to say I quickly gave up on Ulysses.

I’m not saying this cannot be enjoyable, only that by writing it, an author is taking a huge risk. How Anthony Burgess ever published A Clockwork Orange I will never know. On a first reading, this thin book brimming with made-up language, drooges, and psychosis makes very little sense. You need a lot of patience to dismantle and understand such books.

There are good and there are bad, but the question: Are they worth writing? Are they worth reading?

Can we learn anything from writing straight from the mind of a drug-addled lunatic? Perhaps. Though written in harsh grammar and strange language, Requiem for a Dream proved quite readable and interesting, dealing in how addiction takes over

lives. Then again, I would contest that the film does almost just as good a job, so there may not be a purpose in reading the book. Yeah, I said it: sometimes movies are better than the books they’re based on. *Cough, cough, Jurassic Park*

One such book I read nearly a year ago was published by a dark, edgy, experimental publisher Two Dollar Radio. The book was The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich. Reading it is like being doped up while tied to the roof of a train car as it races down the track at a hundred miles an hour. The plot is a mix of local lore, mythic teenagers, hedonistic helplessness, and strange hallucinations. Despite the fact that I still don’t know what happened, the book affected me. I enjoyed at leas the experience of delving into the protagonist’s mind to see things through her warped eyes.

What do you think about reading novels that sometimes don’t make sense or with such unreliable narrators that you question their sanity?

Also, check out this comprehensive list on Litreactor of books about addicts. 

 

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Book Snobs Are Snobby

Sometimes, just because you have a degree in English doesn’t give you the right to be persnickety. (If you were not such an inarticulate plebeian, you’d know what that means.)

“Oh, what books do I like to read? Well, I’m glad you asked, but probably have not HEARD about any of them. I have very obscure literary tastes:  no Pulitzer prize winners or Short-listeners for the PEN/Faulkner awards. CERTAINLY nothing on a bestseller lists, because those books have such drab plots.

Actually, I only read books that haven’t been published yet. No, it’s fine that you want to read “normal” books along with the rest of the plebians.

Oh, The New Yorker gave it a good review? Well, if you want to conform to what the NEW YORKER thinks, fine go ahead, read to your heart’s content. I’ll just try to find authors you’ve never heard of and then laugh at the absurdity of your reading choices.”

Just to be clear, I hate these people. There’s a reason certain books are read widely or win awards. Just because you dislike a book doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold merit. In fact, any book that can make you feel something- that’s good literature. Even books that merely piss you off.

I feel the same way about music. I just don’t listen to bands if in order to buy their new albums I need to know some secret password which I can only find scrawled on the door of an Ohio truck stop bathroom. But I think music and books are good as long as they make you feel something. That even means Ke$ha who only inspires me to dance and party; note, though, that she does inspire me to do SOMETHING.

A story that inspires nothing, not even frustration… that’s quite a bland story.

The truth is, reading has been an elitist activity, done only by intellectuals. I’m not impressed that you like to read War and Peace over the summer instead of some fun book. Because guess what? I spent the summer reading Nick Hornsby and The Hunger Games triology. I know, as a writer I’m supposed to be a literary snob. I am supposed to like highbrow fiction only, constantly study the syntax of MASTERS.

But you write a book that people will enjoy, and just because scholars say that a book is classic, I shan’t read it unless it excites me. Unless I like the story and relate to the characters. Now, some classics are certainly classics for a reason, but understand, other classics are classics because they’re intensely difficult to understand. Scholars and English majors love authors that only they can relate to, because it gives them a sense of superiority.

I’m looking at YOU James Joyce.

Some books, I know, are even referred to as “guilty pleasures” or as “trashy.” But anything you enjoy has some merit, doesn’t it? I openly admit that I obsessively watch shows like Misfits, Skins, Glee, and True Blood. I even watching THE GLEE PROJECT! While I have been told these are “trashy” shows, they allow me to indulge in something separate from my life. And that… seems to matter.

What I’m saying is, I will not criticize what you read, because all writers are not snobs. Read whatever you’d like. And if anyone casts a downward glance at your