Very Bad Things: A Pessimistic Reading List

September 28, 2011 | 4 books mentioned 15 4 min read

These are troubled times. The news cycles have seemed particularly dark lately. Knowing that times have always been troubled — was there ever a generation that didn’t suffer from the creeping suspicion that everything’s kind of going to hell? — provides limited solace.

There are always distractions, of course, but sheer escapism is too easy. I’d like to propose something more along the lines of semi-escapism. All of the following books are works of fiction, but there are moments, I’ve found, when fiction conveys nearly as much about the world we find ourselves in as the news does. With that in mind, a reading list:

1. The illegal arms trade

The Night Manager, by John le Carré

coverJonathan Pine is an Englishman, a night manager at an expensive Zurich hotel, a man of supreme competence who has worked his way up to the highest strata of his profession. He formerly held the same position at a grand hotel in Cairo, until an indiscretion on his part cost a woman her life; a hotel guest entrusted him with documents detailing transactions between her wealthy Egyptian boyfriend and an arms dealer, Richard Roper, whom she described to Pine as “the worst man in the world.” Pine passed these documents on to a British spy, one of the arms dealers received a call from an interested party in London, and a short time later the woman was murdered. Pine had loved her.

Less than a year later, the worst man in the world arrives with his entourage at the hotel in Zurich, and Pine is presented with an opportunity for revenge. Is this a spy novel? It is, but also it’s a literary exploration of identity, love, and desperation, because this is after all le Carré we’re talking about, and Pine is one of the most fully rendered and fascinating characters I’ve ever come across in fiction.

2. War

Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes

coverA Vietnam War novel that deserved even more attention than it received. Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas arrives in Vietnam as an Ivy League-educated reservist, an aspiring politician hoping to collect a medal or two, in charge of a company composed mostly of teenagers. The novel is part portrait of a company working under impossible conditions, part chronicle of Mellas’s transformation in a world of meaningless butchery, terror, and terrible mismanagement. I think Matterhorn is a masterpiece, and I don’t throw that word around very often.

3. Terrorism

The Attack, by Yasmina Khadra

coverDr. Amin Jaafari is an Israeli citizen of Arab descent, a distinguished surgeon at a hospital in Tel Aviv. His wife, Sihem, is also an Israeli Arab. They are educated, cultured, and sophisticated people, who count the crème-de-la-crème of Israeli society among their close friends and entertain them in their beautiful home.

Jaafari’s at the hospital one day when an explosion rattles the walls. A suicide bomber has detonated in a nearby neighborhood. The bomber struck in the middle of a crowded restaurant where a child was celebrating a birthday party, and of the 19 killed, 11 are children. After a terrible day and half a night of operating on the desperately wounded, Jaafari makes his way home and falls into bed, only to be awoken a couple of hours later by a ringing phone: he needs to come back to the hospital. When he returns to the hospital, he’s given unspeakable news: his wife, whom he’d believed to be out of town, is dead in the morgue, and his colleagues need him to identify her. Not only is she dead, but her injuries strongly suggest that she was the suicide bomber.

The Attack is a refreshingly balanced novel, a work that never slips into the territory of political screed. Khadra is unflinching in his depiction of the agonies suffered by both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

4. Unbelievably creepy corporations with way too much power/food shortages

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

coverSet in a post-oil near-future where sea levels have risen so high that Bangkok would be deep underwater if not for a system of pumps and retaining walls holding the ocean at bay, where travel to the other side of the world is accomplished in days or weeks, not hours, and where the world’s food supplies are largely controlled by a handful of multinational corporations — calorie companies — who will stop at nothing to maintain and expand their monopolies. Bioterrorism is a favorite weapon.

Anderson Lake is a calorie company man, AgriGen’s agent in Bangkok, keeping up a plausible cover as a factory owner while he searches the markets for new fruits, new vegetables, new genehacked variations on foods believed to be extinct. Emiko is a Windup Girl, not quite human, a creature genetically engineered to satiate the whims of a Japanese businessman and then abandoned to a miserable life in a Bangkok sex club. Their lives intersect at a moment when the survival of Bangkok and of the Thai kingdom itself is threatened.

5. Psychotic family members/completely uncalled-for power grabs

King Lear, by William Shakespeare

coverIf you haven’t read this yet, perhaps you should. Not just to stave off the vague sense of inadequacy that can come over a person when that person hasn’t read quite enough Shakespeare, but because it’s a harrowing and beautifully written piece of work.

Edgar: “Oh gods! Who is ‘t can say, “I am at the worst?”
I am worse than e’er I was. …
And worse I may be yet. The worst is not
So long as we can say, “This is the worst.”


Image credit: Steve Punter/Flickr.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her most recent novel, Station Eleven, was a 2014 National Book Awards finalist. She is married and lives in Brooklyn.


  1. What a cool way to spin a list. Usually the focus is on best selling books or best “something or other”. The “Pessimistic Reading List” is inspired. I’ve shared it with my website visitors.

  2. The Submission by Amy Waldman – a fictionalized account of designing the 9/11 memorial – is currently making me want to drink myself to death.

  3. Great shout on The Night Manager, Emily. Obviously Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is getting all the attention now, and you tend to see A Perfect Spy described as LeCarre’s masterpiece. But this one is just superb, and Pine is a wonderful, complex character.

  4. Don’t forget Herta Muller’s The Appointment, the story of one day in the life of a young woman factory worker during Ceausescu’s reign.

  5. Oh boy, think I’ve got one: “Timoleon Vieta Come Home” – Dan Rhodes

    From Amazon:

    “Cockroft, a faded composer and socialite, lives in self-imposed exile and fantasizes of true love and extravagant suicides. Rattling around his dilapidated farmhouse in the Italian countryside, his only constant source of company is the ever-loyal Timoleon Vieta, a mongrel with the most beautiful eyes. When a handsome but surly individual arrives on the scene, Cockroft is forced to choose between his dog and this new arrival. He abandons Timoleon outside Rome’s Coliseum, where the dog begins the long journey home.”

    The Amazon comment section for this book gave me whiplash:

    5 Stars: “A perfect dark comedy.”

    5 Stars: “A terrifically written tragedy.

    And then there are the One-stars:

    “We need saving from this book.”

    “Cruel, sad little book to be avoided at all costs.”

    “If he were standing right here I would throw the book at him.”

    Moe Murph
    (Lassie This Ain’t)

  6. My goodness, this 2011 piece by Emily St. John Mandel is like a cat with nine lives. And here it is again. Weird experience of realizing I commented on it last January (in one of its more recent appearances). Totally forgot.

    Would not usually do this, but since Janet mentions Amy Waldman’s “The Submission,” and since Rudy Giuliani is in the news a bit lately in his role as increasingly desperate Republican nominee surrogate, am going to repeat a piece from a poem of mine. It is about riding on the “One World Trade Center” (still-named) line from Astoria to Queens on December 23, 2002, looking around, and “finding” my poem. My suitably pessimistic (or staunchly realistic?) verse I thought of:

    Newspaper headlines jump
    Rudy rips WTC Memorial Plans!
    And New York returns with relief to cantankerous normality

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