The Favourites: James Butler on pessimism

Words by James Butler

Published on November 15, 2011

Working in a book shop, a place where you get customers asking for recommendations just as often as small talk about the Kindle, my favourite novel is a question I should be able to muster up an answer to.

Over the past couple of days I’ve sat in my bedroom drinking wine of questionable quality and preoccupied myself with this big question. I’ve run my fingers across spines on my bookshelf and pulled out some titles, leafing through their dog-eared and soft yellowing pages, and remembered the people and places where these stories became mine. And while I have not yet, if ever, decided on my ultimate single most favourite novel of all time, I have put my finger on the thing that links all of my favourites together:

From the dystopia of Nineteen Eighty Four  and Brave New World, to the tragedy of The Great Gatsby, and the
life-is-terrible-and-it’s-not-getting-better philosophy of Esther Greenwood and Holden Caulfield, I can’t seem to get enough of those negative vibes. In Annie Hall, Woody Allen says that Sylvia Plath’s “tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the schoolgirl mentality”.

Well Woody, slap a varsity jacket on my back and call me Suzy, because in my opinion a tortured character is the best character!

Even though Sylvia Plath was not a character but a real lady. AT LEAST I CAN KEEP MY HANDS OFF MY STEPDAUGHTER.

Perhaps it’s the voyeurism, the chance to be a fly on the wall in a story that I’d love to hear but couldn’t stand to see in real life. Perhaps it’s a reaction to the overexposed and super clean happy ending, and my participation in the fallacy that angst-y emotions are more real than optimistic ones. Or maybe it’s the fact that at eleven years old, I went from reading chapter books about Selby the talking dog to novels about Napoleon the murdering pig.  Whatever it is, I’m definitely some of kind of literary sadist.

So as I lay on the floor, Crittenden in hand, chin rested on my fist and door ajar just so as to allow my housemates to see I’m doing something incredibly important, my advice to you is this. Keep that frown upside down. Stuck for plot ideas? Sink down an extra wine and slap in a suicide. You’ll make this reader very happy.