Once upon a time, I was a freshman in college. Optimistic and bright-eyed, I looked forward to a college experience filled with the exciting exploits foretold in glossy handbooks and prospective-student brochures followed by a future career as an illustrious opera singer. (Oh past-me, you were adorable.)
One of my classes my first semester was freshman English – a literature class. I am an avid reader so I was super excited about the class (A class where you read books?! Sign me up!) and so I read all four books in the first three weeks of class.
This was a mistake.
The books were, in order:
The Things They Carried
A Thousand Acres
For anyone who has had the misfortune to read all of these, you’ll already know that this is a collection of the most depressing, spirit-crushing novels known to man. In these books, the most horrible things happened to the blandest of people – helpless people whose sole purposes were to be tortured by the author like little literary voodoo dolls. Reading all four of these in the space of three weeks is enough to snuff out your hope for humanity for at least a couple months or so.
For funsies, here’s a sampling of some of the thrills and chills of the most depressing lit class ever, which is what the class description should have said.
Free misery – because I care.
The Things They Carried
Well, it’s about Vietnam. I probably don’t need to say any more, but the highlights included:
One member of the platoon getting blown up by a land mine causing his innerds to be strewn amongst the trees like Christmas lights.
The entire platoon spending the night in a field of human feces where one unlucky soldier turns on a flashlight to look at a picture of his buddy’s sweetheart and gets shot.
Other guys that survived and returned home only to kill themselves years later after failing to reintegrate into society.
Basically, a laugh a minute. It was fairly horrifying, but it was about Vietnam. They don’t make cheerful books about Vietnam, so I accepted it for what it was and pressed on.
I really thought this one was going to be a winner. The book was engaging, the pacing was so well done I couldn’t put it down, the characters were… well two out of three ain’t bad. It was a fabulous adventure novel. It’s a story about a guy who goes off to war, but things don’t go well and he deserts. He travels half way across the country dodging both enemy soldiers and soldiers from his side to return to his lady love. He prevails against all odds and returns to his sweetheart. I choose to remember the book ending right there.
Because in the last 10 pages of the book, an intellectually disabled boy shoots the hero and he dies. Why? Because that’s how you win book awards, people. It was like Deus Ex Machina only instead of magically fixing everything, this kid shoots the main character pretty much just to ruin your whole damn day and to make you want to pitch the book across the room (which I did, so… mission accomplished).
A Thousand Acres
Where do I even begin? There isn’t even any pretense of cheerfulness in this one. It’s been referred to as King Lear in a cornfield – if you know anything about King Lear, you’ll know that this isn’t going to end well for our poor defenseless characters. It’s a story about a family somewhere where they have big farms and ranches (hence the title). Probably Texas or Montana.
Highlights? The book goes into great detail about an incident that happened to one member of the family who was blinded by anhydrous ammonia. So that was swell. It devolves from there detailing the marital and child bearing problems of one of the sisters (There are three and I don’t remember which is which. It doesn’t really matter, none of them come out unscathed.) The father turns into a total whackadoodle – and not the fun, quirky kind either – he disinherits one sister, and one of his sons sues him. Then one of the sisters remembers being sexually abused by their father throughout her childhood and no one in their family believes her – even her other sister, who was also abused. Oh, and then one of the sisters gets cancer.
Last, but certainly not least depressing.
The main characters are a man, his wife, and “the other woman”. The man seems alright at first, but morphs into an indecisive puddle of goo somewhere in the middle and is pretty much a weak-willed spineless loser for the rest of the book. The wife is a bitchy hypochondriac, and the “other woman” is her long-suffering caretaker. Basically, Ethan, the spineless wonder, spends the whole freaking book fretting about whether he should or shouldn’t leave his wife for the other woman. Fretting? Not fun to listen to someone do it in real life. Even less fun to read about in literature.
Eventually, we finally manage to get to the point where the two of them are on their way out of town, and they stop to go sledding because they talked about it once. (… because nothing says passionate love and adultery like sledding?) But of course by this point, the gutless wonder has changed his mind again and decides that he really can’t leave his wife. So the other woman suggests that it’d be a better idea to commit suicide together by sledding into a tree. The guy agrees, because apparently while leaving your wife is reprehensible, suicide is A-OK. Predictably, he chickens out at the last second. He can’t even commit to committing suicide! (Ba dum bum ching – I’ll see myself out.) Both of them wind up injured – the woman is incapacitated. Many years later, the wife – not a hypochondriac anymore – spends the rest of her life caring for both of them.
So the ENTIRE NOVEL is pretty much just set-up for the “deep tragic ironic ending”. Gag.
Sometimes a pickle dish is just a pickle dish
By this time, I was pretty much fed up with this class – the books were depressing, which the professor seemed to relish. She was a big fan of the “intestines in the tress” bit and we must have discussed the “shit fields” from that book for at least two class periods. But the over-analyzing is what really sent me over the edge. Here’s my favorite:
The cat breaking the wife’s favorite pickle dish is representative of their marriage falling apart.
I have a different analysis I would like to do on this “pickle dish”.
1) What the hell is a pickle dish? Do people really have specific dishes just for pickles? (NOTE: I just looked this up, and yeah. Some people really do have a specific dish for pickles. It’s basically a fancy plate… upon which pickles are placed.)
2) If one has a “favorite” pickle dish, that indicates that person has more than one pickle dish. That seems excessive. How many pickles do these people eat??
3) What qualities are desirable when choosing a favorite pickle dish? Is it the decorative bits or are we talking sheer pickle holding capacity here?
In my last paper for the class, I wrote something like “The books were horrible and depressing, and the characters were awful people that did awful things for no reason other than the authors were clearly trying to write the most depressing books possible.”
The professor did not agree with my analysis and wrote:
You clearly did not read the books.
at the top of my paper and gave me an F. I got a D in that class, and I never corrected her misconception that I had not read her books. I always imagined that she congratulated herself on how insightful she was and would brag to friends and family that, “I can always tell when a student hasn’t read the book. It’s so obvious.” Who was I to pop her bubble?
If that professor analyzed my time at that college, maybe she would say that my experiences in her class were a metaphor for my overall experience at that college – disenchanting, frustrating, and ending in not-quite-abject failure. Or she might say that the fact that I bought black hangers for my closet instead of white ones showed my lack of hope and foreshadowed my eventual disillusionment and departure from college. Who knows, really?
Later, while finishing college at a different university whose lit program didn’t operate by snuffing out all light and goodness, I took a different literature class where we analyzed science fiction short stories. Best. Class. Ever.
Roger Zelazny kicks Edith Wharton’s ass any day of the week.