Depravity Happens. Do We Have to Read About It? The Case for (and against) Violence in Literature

This spring I nearly declared a moratorium on violent fiction after reading three savage novels: The Orphan Master’s Son, The Sympathizer and A Little Life. Afterward life felt dirty. Basta! After all, the news is horrific: a toddler refugee washes ashore, a white cop shoots a black man in the back—again again again, a strongman POTUS candidate polls close to 50 percent.

Violence in Fiction: Toward A Typology

Long ago I limited my mystery intake to Agatha Christie types. She mentions murder, but she doesn’t live there. Stephen King is a far better writer, but his visceral descriptions of…viscera make me queasy. And honestly, arguably snobbishly, I don’t have the stomach to read violent books unless there’s a greater purpose. Why not add “literary” fiction to my violence moratorium?

After finishing these three novels, I wondered, would I recommend them? Re-read them? Two I would without question. The third, well, I’m still thinking. Yet all of them included acts of foulest depravity. What was the difference?

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Pak Jun-Do lives in a North Korean orphanage. We fear for him. In North Korea to be an orphan is to suffer a worse fate than an Untouchable in India. At 14, Jun-Do is trained for “zero-light combat.” At 22 an officer tosses him a sack. Inside are blue jeans, a yellow polo shirt and Nikes. His new uniform. For what state job?

Spoiler alert: In the dark, the officer and Jun-Do board a skiff. They set off for the coast of Japan. They are to pick up…someone. Anyone who speaks Japanese will do. “Dear Leader” needs a Japanese tutor. The terror of this Japanese man as he runs down the beach, his loyal dog bounding beside him, I will not soon forget. We are a dozen pages in. 431 more to go.

Afterward, I sought news on North Korea. It was chilling. Adam Johnson’s fiction was not, broadly speaking, fictional. The kidnapping, the torture, the identity-erasure, these happen in North Korea. The author illuminated a dark and deeply puzzling corner of the world. For me, those insights were worth the cost of admission.

Here, I thought, is one version of what it is like to be ruled by a strongman.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

It is April 1975 in Saigon. Our narrator is born of a Vietnamese mother and a French priest. He is “a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” He sympathizes. He is a double agent.

“The General” tasks the narrator with drawing up a list of Vietnamese to be evacuated on the last flights out of Saigon. On the narrator’s list are his two best friends (one a secret Communist, the other loyal to South Vietnam). They begin a new life in L.A.

Spoiler alert: Early on to preserve his cover, the narrator sacrifices a fellow Communist to torture and prison. Ultimately he will have to choose between his politics and his best friends.

Meantime, the author, Viet Thanh Nguyen, is bleakly hilarious.

The narrator, a college grad, a spy, arguably an expert on Vietnam, gets work as an assistant to the secretary of the Department Chair of “Oriental Studies.” (Insult to injury, this American university studies his geopolitical world—good, but calls the department not East Asian Studies, but by the derogatory term Oriental. Bad.)

When the student newspaper profiles the narrator, he smiles for the camera. “[I] was doing my best imitation of a Third World child on one of those milk cartons passed around elementary schools for American children to deposit their pennies and dimes in order to help poor Alejandro, Abdullah, or Ah Sing have a hot lunch and an immunization. And I was thankful truly! But I was also one of those unfortunate cases who could not help but wonder whether my need for American charity was due to my having first been the recipient of American aid.”

After America bestowed its largesse and its bombs on Vietnam, our narrator is again and still at the mercy of American charity. At its best, the novel is brutal, farcical and a heart-rending portrait of the chaotic end of a long-fought war, of migrants demoted, living constrained lives in their new country. A tale that feels all too relevant as we fight on in our 15th year of the War on Terror with no end in sight. Already worldwide there are more refugees than any time since World War II.

If your view of the Vietnam War was shaped by movies like Apocalypse Now and books like Dispatches,Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel The Sympathizer will widen, even alter that perspective. The focus in The Sympathizer is not on the jaded American but on the Vietnamese.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Author Hanya Yanagihara is right up there with Alice Munro. In their hands, exposition is fascinating, packed with insight and wisdom. The reader races through pages.

A Little Life is terrific on our choices in friendship and love and their associated costs. It is also an homage to suffering. But Yanigihara is smart. We see Jude suffer but we won’t know the cause(s) for hundreds of pages, long after we are hooked on these four friends.

But. I spent the latter half of the book furious with the author. She braided violence with sensuality. And I kept reading. Spoiler alert:

“The next evening [Jude] changes into a short-sleeve T-shirt, one of Willem’s, and goes to the kitchen. He arranges everything he needs: the olive oil, a long wooden match. He places his left forearm in the sink, as if it’s a bird to be plucked, and choose an area a few inches above where his palm begins, before taking the paper towel he’s wet with oil and rubbing it onto his skin in an apricot-sized circle. He stares for a few seconds at the gleaming grease stain, and then he takes a breath and strikes the match against the side of its box and holds the flame to his skin until he catches on fire.

…the smell of smoking oil leads him to a memory of a meal of roasted funghi he and Willem had had in Perugia which leads him to a Tintoretto exhibit that he and Malcolm had seen in their twenties at the Frick…”

Yanagihara evokes taste with oil, apricot, funghi; romance and travel with Perugia; art with Tintoretto and the Frick. She associates the most exquisite pleasures to a man burning his skin. I can’t forgive her. She married suffering to beauty. Deriving pleasure from her sentences, her images—and how could I not?—I was implicated in Jude’s suffering. For me, this borders on violence porn. This is the novel I’m not sure I would re-read.

On the other hand, of the three authors, she penetrated my defenses best. In making me suffer most, did she render suffering most truly?

The Case for Violence

Each novel used a different dodge to keep the reader reading through the ghastliest material. Johnson renders suffering precisely but remotely. We hear the dog not the kidnapped man. Nguyen detaches us with Catch 22 humor. Both Johnson and Nguyen’s techniques distance us from violence. Yanigihara lures us with glittering prose, before marinating us in suffering and sensuality. She brings us closer to violence.

So What If We Never Read Violent Fiction?

In 2013, The Orphan Master’s Son won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. In his acceptance speech, Johnson said, “[Five generations of North-Koreans] have never read a book that wasn’t censored, state-approved and designed solely to glorify…the Kim leadership.”

And that, that right there, for me, is the cost of not reading books about violence and consequent suffering. If writers don’t light up the darkest corners, and readers don’t look, won’t that ignorance allow more suffering? How can we prevent that which we do not try to understand?


Affinity Konar’s novel, Mischling, just came out. The NYT Book Review loved it. Twelve-year-old twin girls are sent to Auschwitz. Real life Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele adds them to his “zoo.” He performs barbarous experiments on them. Konar, says the reviewer, writes “beautifully, lyrically, in the language of fable” of these “horrors.” When one twin tells a nurse, “I’ve never wanted to grow up,” the nurse responds, “Then you are in the right place.”

Bring it on.




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