Sometimes I think my definition of "dark" isn't in line with other people's.
I recently finished Alan Heathcock's short story collection, Volt
. I bought it on the basis of the first story. "The Staying Freight" is fantastic, by the way. It's definitely on my very short list of favorite short stories, and is more pathos-ridden than the others on the list. It's about a farmer named Winslow who accidentally runs over his only child with farm equipment, and then after the funeral decides that he must take a walk. Though he keeps thinking that it's time to turn around and go home to his wife Sadie, he can't quite bring himself to do it, and soon he ends up on the wrong side of a mountain range. He goes feral for a while, and when he tries to re-enter civilization by working on a stranger's farm he ends up becoming a sideshow freak, the man who can take a punch to the gut and not go down. And it's really quite awful, especially because you can see inside Winslow and you can see that this is all he thinks he deserves, even though what he wants, by then, is to go back to Sadie. It hit all the right notes for me, plucked all the right heart strings. I thought it was wrenching.
With later stories, though, my emotional engagement went down. I didn't connect to any other characters as much as I did to Winslow and Sadie, and their stories and philosophies and visions of the world started to sound the same. I got a little bored. A lot of reviewers seem to like Helen Farraley, the grocer-cum-sheriff, but I disliked her; she read to me as a remorseless vigilante cloaked in self-righteousness and astonishing amounts of self-pity. She's unambiguously cast as a hero, though, toiling against a chaotic world, and although that world is full of murder and vandalism and animal-killings and vestiges of war, I never bought that this was a world any darker than the average Law & Order: SVU. Heathcock gives his favorite characters a lot of dignity and "basic decency" (not a bad thing). Bad people are few and far between. Everyone gets redeemed (though their descents are not very deep). The only story that I felt really got as strange
as "The Staying Freight" was the Grey Gardens
-esque "The Daughter," my second-favorite. In the others you basically have decent folks having to deal with criminals and death and life's normal disappointments with a "traditional Midwestern" stoicism, and it all just got kind of hum-drum.
So it's weird to see so many people comment on the grimness and darkness of Volt
. I was expecting another Blood Meridian
based on the reviews. "Abysmal world"? The "grim, rural town of Krafton"? "Macabre ill-luck"? Macabre? Really? It baffles me because Volt
is not gothic in any way. The universe in Volt
is a basically good one. Save for the ones in "The Daughter," no character even feels anything so ugly as hate! Here's the only negative review of Volt
on Amazon: "revolting, reviling, unutterably bleak, and pointless. I was reminded of Cormac McCarthy and some of his novels, and Flannery O'Connor came to mind, her "grotesque" characters. There's no question that this author has talent, however not as much as either of the above, I just wish he'd find something more palatable to write about." I almost can't believe this reviewer has read McCarthy or O'Connor if they think there's any comparison here. Roald Dahl
is darker than Volt
I thought of this again when reading about the Wall Street journal article lamenting that YA fiction is too dark. YA authors and editors immediately leapt to the defense of the YA books that they perceived to be under attack. I have never understood the appeal of YA or even the definition of YA since its most vigorous proponents seem to be adults, but anyway. My general reaction to this article and all the commentary that followed was "content does not make for darkness." The presence of profanity doesn't make a book "dark" to me (just a book with characters who use profanity). Neither does having a character get beaten or raped or killed. If it's an "issue book" then that applies doubly so, because then the whole point is to be an after-school special (maybe rated R; adults have their own after-school specials).
So I've been trying to figure out what makes a book "dark" for me, and I think it's world view. That may not be the right word, but it's the best I can do right now. My usual example is McCarthy's The Road
vs. Anything Else He's Written
. The Road
horrified a ton of people, some of them Oprah's book club readers, some not, because it depicts the end of the world, cannibal tribes, people roasting babies, basically everyone being dead, the sea being black, etc. But the whole point of The Road
is the idea of "carrying the fire" despite the over-the-top desolation of the world around you, of this Christ-like little boy who neither dies nor ever compromises his virtuous qualities. When I read this book I was like "???" because the first thing I read by McCarthy was The Crossing
, which features no Christ-like characters, and a main character who, while not a bad guy, spends the last scene being abusive to a dog that needs his help, then feeling bad about it, wanting to make it up to the dog, and then being unable to find the dog
. There's no apocalypse, no over-the-top violence (compared to The Road
, anyway), but I found it way more painful to read. The Road
presents a stark vision of virtue and destruction that I don't find grim or dark at all, despite all the violence. The Crossing
, though, I find grim. Genuinely dark.
This is not to say that I think even "real" darkness guarantees merit. I don't. "The Staying Freight" is neither "really" dark nor pretending to be, ends on a note of hope, and is great. But fiction with "surface-level" darkness does seem to be in these days (though I don't know if that's what Heathcock's trying to write - probably not). Some people respond to it and extol it, usually as reflecting reality and truth and "what the world is really like" (or in the case of The Road
, it's "what the world will be like after the government is taken out"), and what seems to be a minority really object to it on grounds that it's depraved or whatnot. And I wish more people would read The Violent Bear It Away