Christ but it’s awful. Between the more-inappropriate-then-ever exhortations to excessive consumption (“Battery turkey? You tasteless plebeian fiend, simply everyone’s having rare-breed Guinea Fowl with Nigella’s gingerbread-and-rollmop stuffing this year,” fuck off why don’t you, don’t you know there’s a recession on?) and the terrible music everywhere (and how much must it suck to be Jona Lewie? 11 months of the year, nobody knows who you are, then for one month EVERYONE knows EXACTLY who you are, and they all think you’re a cunt), and the pubs being full of godamned amateurs (“Oooh, is it that much for a gin and tonic?” Yes, yes it is, as you’d be well aware if you’d BEEN IN SINCE FUCKING BUDGET NIGHT, and by the way, I’ve been keeping this place going and wearing my own personal arse-groove into that barstool these past 11 months, get out of my FUCKING way and take your novelty waistcoat with you, you nebbish) and…well, you need something to counteract it all. Literature is, as always, your friend, and what you specifically need is some good, bleak stuff you can get morose and gloomy over. And that’s what I plan to give you, good and hard.
1. Martin Amis, Night Train
An unlikely source, Amis Jnr., as he normally leavens even the weightiest subjects with dextrous, scabrous comedy in a perfect mix of the broad-brush and the filigree (some other time, try Money, London Fields and Success for some of the finest comic writing of the 20th century), but this brief yet absorbing novella (partially inspired by David Simon’s Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets, The Wire fans) abjures laughs for terse, cold, hard boiled meditations on murder and suicide as responses to being alone in a godless universe.
KEY QUOTE: “You key the mike and you get the squawk that no one wants: Check suspicious odor. I have checked suspicious odors. Suspicious? No. This is blazing crime. Fulminant chemistry of death, on the planet of retards. I’ve seen bodies, dead bodies, in tiled morgues, in cell-blocks, in district lockups, in trunks of cars, in project stairwells, in loading-dock doorways, in tractor-trailer turnarounds, in torched rowhouses, in corner carryouts, in cross alleys, in crawlspaces, and I’ve never seen one that sat with me like the body of Jennifer Rockwell, propped there naked after the act of love and life, saying even this, all this, I leave behind.”
2. Neville Shute, On The Beach
Being Shute’s second most famous novel after the heart-warming, life-affirming A Town Like Alice, it gives me a schadenfreudegasm to think of all the people who followed that work with this one, and what a slap in the psyche they must have experienced. OK, from the outset it’s clear this isn’t going to be a barrel of laughs – the whole premise is that a nuclear war has destroyed the northern hemisphere, and backwoods, distant, late-50s Australia, with it’s colonial, repressed, provincial natives and a few accidental refugees, is the only habitable place left, and that only until the weather brings the poison south – but the sheer relentlessness of it, the way Shute refuses to offer any salvation or escape, just calmly narrates a group of basically decent people’s journey to a horrible, inescapable fate, adds up to one of the most despairing books ever, which will reduce even hardened cynics to tears.
KEY QUOTE: “He undid the little carton and took out the vial. “This is a dummy,” he said. “these aren’t real. Goldie gave it me to show you what to do. You just take one of them with a drink – any kind of drink. Whatever you like best. And then you just lie back, and that’s the end.”
“You mean, you die?” The cigarette was dead between her fingers.
He nodded. “When it gets too bad – it’s the way out.”
“What’s the other pill for?” she whispered.
“That’s a spare,” he said. “I suppose they give it you in case you lose one of them, or funk it.””
You wouldn’t think that a comic book about robot men, psychic superheroes, alien invasions and so forth would fit into this kind of list. You’d be wrong. Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol is full of self-aware post-modern fun with the conventions of the spandex-and-fighting genre, but is bookended by two issues which redefine grim, bleak and pitiless.
4. Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
Slow, elegaic, fatalistic…a lot of people seemed to miss the point of this book – a quasi-sci-fi tale of clones, bred to provide organs for donation, and doomed to an early and grisly death – asking “why didn’t they rebel and run away?” To me, it’s an extended meditation on the fact that the defining characteristic of humanity is that we don’t run away from our fate, or scream in alarm; whether in Srebrenica, Sobibor or Surbiton, we accept the hand we’re given and make the best we can of it, and support each other down the long, cold, final road.
KEY QUOTE: “Perhaps we’d have been happy if things had stayed that way for a lot longer; if we could have whiled away more afternoons chatting, having sex, reading aloud and drawing. But with the summer drawing to an end, with Tommy getting stronger, and the possibility of notice for his fourth donation growing ever more distinct, we knew we couldn’t keep putting things off indefinitely.”
5. Derek Raymond, I Was Dora Suarez
Any of Raymond’s works would have filled this slot, especially those from the Factory series, pitiless police procedurals that make Ian Rankin at his gloomiest look like an episode of Midsomer Murders. This one edges it (beyond He Died With His Eyes Open and How The Dead Live – yeah, he didn’t mess about disguising the bleakness, old DR) just for the endlessly grim, hopeless, despairing tone, they way even our nameless cop anti-hero can’t kid himself he’s saving the world, he just wants to save some last vestige of his own belief in truth, if it’s – and it probably is – the last thing he does. If you want a thoroughly depressing musical accompaniment for all this, hunt down the author and Gallon Drunk’s part-audiobook, part-soundtrack-to-a-film-that-could-never-be-made album. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
KEY QUOTE: “Writing Suarez broke me; I see that now. I don’t mean that it broke me physically or mentally, although it came near to doing both. But it changed me; it separated out for ever what was living and what was dead. I realised it was doing so at the time, but not fully, and not how, and not at once…I asked for it, though. If you go down into the darkness, you must expect it to leave traces on you coming up” – Derek Raymond, The Hidden Files