Higher Living Reflections

A Disturbing Novel

In a New York Times column about books that cause a reader to feel uncomfortable, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen argues that that is what great literature does. It causes, to paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi,a disturbance in one’s Force. In Star Wars, that was not a good thing. In one’s personal space, it is a must if one is to grow.

Nguyen describes a novel about the war in Vietnam he read as boy. The graphic depictions and accounts shook him. Though shaken, he didn’t cry to mommy or beg his parents demand the book be pulled from the library shelf. Instead, he returned it and let the story percolate in his memory until he became an adult. Then, he reread the book through mature and sophisticated eyes, something I encouraged my high school students to do. When Nguyen did, he realized that his initial impression of the story was totally false. He came to understand the novel was not about glorifying atrocities and horrors of war but to call attention to the brutal dehumanizing effects war can have on combatants, how they can be reduced to performing sub-human behaviors that in their normal lives, they would utterly abhor.

Nguyen’s piece caused me to not only consider the depth of his message but also to apply it to my own readings. I wondered about which novels I read that disturbed me to the point I became breathless. While many moved and jarred me from the placidity of my comfort zone, works like Beloved by Toni Morrison and East of Eden by John Steinbeck, one novel that shook me to the point I had to put it down and go out for fresh air stands out: Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy.

Prince of Tides is a complex story populated with rich well-developed characters struggling with personal, inter-personal, and social conflicts. The storyline delves into physical and mental abuse, fraying inter-family relationships, disintegration of family, and suicide. The settings—New York City and Charleston, South Carolina—provide a stark contrast that enhances the power of the tale.

From the beginning, I was hooked. It was a page-turner, a perfect escape from a stretch of cold, blustery, dreary December days. Engrossed in the story’s unfolding, I was riveted burning through page after page. Until I got to a mind-blowing scene in which all hell breaks loose. Conroy’s details were more than vivid. They shocked my senses, but that is what they needed to do for me to grasp the scene’s overwhelming power and lasting meaning, which I consider even more shocking.

I closed the book, bundled up, and went for a long walk in the swirling, blustery wind and snow. I had to. The images were most disconcerting and jarring. But after clearing my head, they were not enough to prevent me from re-opening the book and continuing reading. I dug back in, finished the story, and then sat reflecting on what Conroy portrayed. From a time distance. I appreciate how it impacted my perspectives. The story helped shatter illusions and give clarity to confounding human behaviors and issues I had been struggling to make sense of. It reminded me that one cannot make sense of the insensible.

Nguyen states books should not be consumed like something good for us but, instead, be like sinfully unhealthy treats we crave and scarf down. Stories that disturb us, eject us from our comfort zones are the ones that sow the seeds of true learning and growth.

I can enumerate multiple reasons I found Prince of Tides simultaneously disturbing yet intoxicating, but they don’t matter as much as my recall of how it hit me hard right between the eyes causing me to look at a wide-range of stuff from a more enlightened perspective.

Prince of Tides is not for the faint of heart though it might not have the impact I experienced on others since ingesting what one is reading is a most personal experience. But for me, Conroy’s story resonated. It shook, stunned, and opened my eyes and mind. It was one I needed to read. Yours?

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  • Glenn C Blanco
    February 13, 2022 at 2:38 pm

    My book that was disturbing to me was “The Outpost” by Jake Tapper. As a Vietnam vet I was in country during the Siege at Khe Sahn in 1968. “The Outpost” is a story quite like Khe Sahn. “The Outpost” takes place in extreme northeast Afghanistan where 53 Marines hold off a force of over 400 Taliban. In both cases, our forces did their job and fought bravely to stand their ground, only to retreat in shame from both countries. What is disturbing to me is after nearly 50 years, we as Americans have learned nothing in our foreign relations policy.

  • Jerry Fabyanic
    February 13, 2022 at 8:33 pm

    What an interesting topic to explore! Actually, I was just thinking about the way my current reading makes me feel uncomfortable. I’m about 250 pgs into Cloud Cukoo Land by Anthony Doerr…and reading it is disconcerting and jarring. Two of my trusted reading buddies LOVE the book; before reading your blog, I wasn’t sure I’d finish it. (Maybe the topics (e.g., development taking down forests, destroying habitat; the challenges faced by those with mental health issues; the future that my grandson might face in the midst of climate change) are a bit too much before bed. 😉 But maybe this book is calling out illusions and, as you note, giving “clarity to confounding human behaviors and issues I had been struggling to make sense of. – Jean Palmer-Moloney

  • Jerry Fabyanic
    February 13, 2022 at 8:34 pm

    Yes, there have been a number of disturbing novels and films that I have come to treasure. I worried sometimes when I had my students experience them – occasionally we would cry together, but the most rewarding part was the discussions and their written responses after. Even young children can be quite thoughtful about disturbing material if given a supportive context in which to process it. I really appreciate your eloquent and thought provoking writing. This issue has always been an important one, but seems even more timely today. Our son just bought a copy of the graphic novel Maus for his 15 yr. old daughter, as the book banning wave gains momentum. My husband taught about the holocaust for years in all of its complexity and richness of stories as well as what it can continue to teach us today.b – Kathy Taylor

  • Jerry Fabyanic
    February 13, 2022 at 8:35 pm

    Jerry, for me, it’s The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. I felt as though I was living his memories of the Vietnam War….his passion and his torment. It was hard to read without tears, but his ability to weave his story kept me riveted to the pages. Along with Prince of Tides, (yes, a very HARD but rewarding read) Gone with the Wind, Shogun, and Gift From The Sea, The Things They Carried has always been one of my top 5 reads. – Karen Trench