Editor’s Note: Readers who enjoyed the fiction recommendations from the Points editorial crew may want to know that a few of the editors did surf the web looking for ideas as we prepared that post. As we perused the many “Best of 2011” lists out there, we came across “The Nobbies”— a compilation of admirable titles pulled together by the folks at The Nervous Breakdown, an online culture magazine and literary community founded by Brad Listi. The list struck us as notable for its heavy proportion of fiction titles that deal with alcohol, drugs, addiction, and recovery, so we thought we’d venture out of the safe precincts of alcohol and drugs history and try and learn a little bit more about contemporary alcohol and drugs fiction. Listi, himself the author of Attention. Deficit. Disorder— a novel that at least glances at the world of pharmaceuticals– was gracious enough to spend some time helping us think through the issues.
1) A quick perusal of the Nobbies list gives a reader the distinct impression that a lot of these books are about drugs and alcohol, the problems they cause and the ways people solve them. What percentage of the books on the list deal with those questions? Which titles?
I’m not entirely sure. I haven’t read all of the books on the list, which was selected by a variety of people at The Nervous Breakdown. Certainly several of them deal, at least to some extent, with characters engaging in alcohol and drug abuse and its various consequences. I can think of one in particular: Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner, the narrator of which is on a steady diet of pills and wine and hash, and so on. But that’s not exactly an “addiction novel,” per se.
2) What do you think accounts for contemporary fiction’s continuing–growing?–obsession with these topics? Is it a market thing– like people know these books will find an audience? Is it a literary technique things– authors appreciate the formal and narrative things that the conceits associated with addiction allow them to accomplish? Or what?
I think it’s a reality thing. Art imitates life. We live in a world where so many people self-medicate and struggle with various forms of addiction. The writing community is rife with these problems. It’s an occupational hazard. I think it’s inevitable that our literature would reflect this fact. And on the creative level, characters struggling with substance abuse and addiction are often good fodder for narrative. Their lives tend to be dramatic. Addicts engage in extreme behavior and tend to have major unresolved conflicts, both internal and external, and so on. It’s the stuff of good story.
And I’m sure there might also be a business element to the equation. Addiction memoirs are a constant in publishing, much like grief memoirs, or the memoirs of soldiers or famous people or sex workers. This is no accident. Tales of self-injury and taboo-breaking and violence and fame and tragedy and sex and death and redemption—people like to read about this stuff.
3) We’ve all read bad books of the sort described above. Can you tell Points readers about a couple of particularly good books–original, insightful, surprising–in this sub-genre, and explain what makes them work for you?
David Carr’s The Night of the Gun is a good one. He’s a reporter for the New York Times, and in the book he actually investigates his own past in a formal, journalistic manner, seeking out friends and family members who witnessed his downfall, and so on. Asking them questions. Trying to piece it together. This strikes me as humble and eminentlylogical, as drug abuse tends to have a detrimental effect on one’s memory and sense of self, to say the least. The Basketball Diaries is an old favorite. There’s a lyricism and energy and candor to the writing that really rings true. A drug book without guile or self-protection. And another one that really rocked me is Methland, by Nick Reding, which explores the meth epidemic through a socioeconomic lens. It focuses on one town in particular—Oelwein, Iowa—as a way of explaining the broader problem and its roots. [Editor’s note: you can read the Points interview with Nick Reding here.]
4) I think we can probably agree that midlist (as opposed to pulp) fiction about alcohol and drug issues is a pretty white literary form. The gender questions seems more tricky. Would you say that addiction and recovery are, at this point, thematics for “girl’s books” or for “guy’s books”? Or do they really appear in and work for authors of either gender?
I don’t think gender is factor. Not in my experience. And race…I don’t know. Personally, I’ve never thought of it as a “white literary form,” though maybe the statistics bear that out. I just don’t know. It seems to me that these kinds of stories are fair game for anyone to tell, and there are lots of them out there. How they’re told, exactly, may vary along gender lines or racial lines. That seems possible. But at their core I think they tend to be the same: self-destruction and redemption. People feeling pain. People feeling lonely and unlovable. People trying to fill bottomless holes with pills and smoke and booze. It’s human stuff. It knows no bounds.
5) The Points editorial board put together a list of recommended alcohol and drug films for those down times during the holidays just past. You have a degree in film studies; what do you recommend?
Well, if you want to get really hardcore about it, you can’t beat Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000), which is an adaptation of the Hubert Selby novel. Great performances in that one, Ellen Burstyn in particular. But you’ll probably need to take a shower after watching it. Days of Wine and Roses is another good one, an old film from 1962. Jack Lemmon is terrific. I’m pretty sure he struggled with addiction in real life, and the performance seems to reflect it. There’s not a better actor. Trainspotting(1996) is a contemporary classic of the genre. A nice window into the raging hell of heroin addiction, with a pretty good soundtrack. There are so many.