As a note: this column will be discussing material some readers might find distressing, disturbing or traumatizing. In this column, I delve into literature which focuses on extremely dark aspects of sex including sexual assault and a sexual fixation on a child. I would implore any reader who does not wish to read about such material, for any reason, to simply move on.

Last semester, muddling my way through the Contemporary American Literature class at Weber State University, I noticed a recurring theme in the literature we discussed over the fifteen weeks. All of the authors of contemporary fiction seemed to be going out of their way to make readers uncomfortable in as many ways as possible. E.L. Doctorow, for instance, asks us to question every inkling of faith we may have ever had in his novel “City of God.” In his Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Sympathizer,” Viet Thanh Nguyen shows us America through a communist spy’s eyes during and after the Vietnam War, challenging our views of ourselves by placing us into an outsider’s shoes.

Reading “The Sympathizer” affected me adversely, more so than any other novel on the class’s diverse reading list. Part of this was due to the gratuitous depictions of sexual assault in the novel.

Two people get brutally raped over the four hundred pages: one, a film actress portraying a poor Vietnamese girl who is captured by the communists and subjected to repeated sexual assault and then killed, and the second, a rape observed in person by the narrator, foreshadowed by the one performed on the silver screen.

The rape the narrator witnesses firsthand occurs under an American intelligence official’s direction. The act is performed by several Southern Vietnamese police officers who have captured a communist agent. The agent refuses to talk under interrogation, so the American intelligence officer commands her rape in order to force her to speak. Nguyen describes the act in horrific detail. After they’re done, one of the officers pours a Coke bottle over the agent’s body to “clean” her, and then shoves it into her and makes a joke about being an OB-GYN.

Reading this book, I asked myself why Nguyen would go to such lengths to describe the rapes. In fact, the entire novel has an obsession with the treatment of sexuality and women. Now, it is likely in this novel Nguyen wished to create discourse concerning the American “rape” of Vietnam during and after the war. But this novel put me on a train of thought I have yet to be able to find a way off of.

Why did “The Sympathizer” win the Pulitzer Prize for 2016? Why do disturbing, gratuitous, sexual novels so often do so well in our culture?

Open book against grunge background
Open book against grunge background (

I read the novel “Lolita” in early June this year, and followed it up with “Memoirs of a Geisha” because I felt like feeling sad for a few weeks in a row. “Lolita,” written by Vladimir Nabokov, was first published in 1955, and it has remained quietly present in our culture ever since. The leading actress, Sue Lyon, won the Golden Globe for the 1962 film version of the novel. In the States, the book was the first novel since “Gone With The Wind” to sell 100,000 copies in its first three weeks on the shelves.

If you’ve never read the book, first, I would recommend putting this down and going to read it. I will offer a short summary: The novel is told from the point of view of a literary scholar under the pseudonym Humbert Humbert. He describes his life, from his birth in Paris to his present state of incarceration in the States. The events leading to his incarceration form the backbone of the novel, focusing on his sexual obsession with what he calls “nymphets,” girls aged from somewhere around 9 to 12.

The depictions of sexuality in Nabokov’s novel are slightly less overt than in Nguyen’s novel, but the subject matter is as disturbing, if not more so. Humbert kidnaps a young girl and takes her on a trip across the country, performing his sexual deviance along the way. The novel isn’t easy to get through, but it is extremely thought-provoking.

The same holds true for “Memoirs of a Geisha,” by Arthur Golden. This novel describes how a young woman is sold by her father to be trained as a geisha, an entertainer of sorts, in Japan during the 30s and 40s. The girl, Sayuri, is ripped from everything she’s known and placed into a world where her appearance and composure are everything.

Possibly the most jarring part of this novel is when Sayuri’s virginity is auctioned off during a scheme devised by her mentor in order to increase her popularity, and everyone is excited when it sells for the highest on record.

This novel, similar to “The Sympathizer,” spends itself considering the role and power women have in society, often by showing women being treated brutally by others. Sayuri is forced into the life of a geisha because it is the only way she can be profitable to those who purchased her, and as a geisha, her life depends on having a “danna,” a man who will purchase gifts for her in exchange for sex, essentially.

Again, we come back to the why of the whole matter. Many authors argue we get catharsis from reading books like this. Catharsis was somewhat notoriously first used as a term by Aristotle, who famously referenced it in passing as he wrote that the function of tragedy was to cleanse emotions of pity and fear in Katharsis of these emotions. The idea since has taken hold in psychology to be understood as a way to relieve oneself of emotions without taking an act to do so personally. Another way of saying this would be that as we read “The Sympathizer” and experience the rapes as the narrator, we receive mental benefit from doing so. This leads into the idea of vicarious, voyeuristic experience.

These novels, like many, are told from the perspective of the narrator. In doing so, the authors submerge us in their characters thoughts and emotions. Reading “The Sympathizer,” we think as the narrator does, in “Lolita,” we are Humbert, in “Memoirs of a Geisha,” we walk the streets of Gion as Sayuri. This vicarious experience makes us a character as much as we are ourselves. A different way of thinking about this may be to consider what Lolita would be like if it was told from the point of view of an impartial third party — say, the judge who sentences Humbert. In a narration from an external party, we would lose Humbert’s personal thoughts and feelings. Mired in the pages of the novel as it is, we also become mired in Humbert’s obsessions and fears.

Coming out the other end of the novel, personally, I was relieved to be unburdened from Humbert’s mind.

I’m suggesting this is the catharsis, delivered through a vicarious experience. We walk a mile in Humbert’s, or Sayuri’s, or the narrator’s, or anyone’s shoes, and when we’re done, we get to stop being that person. After living the experiences of the characters with them, I no longer have to do what they did to have the experience, at least in some way.

We may be obsessed with this kind of literature because it gives us something. Something dark, perhaps a little unpleasant. And when we’re done reading, we can look back and say, now I’ve done that, and I won’t ever have to again.

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