On The Road Jack Kerouac An ultimate classic in the worst sense of the word. One of those books celebrated for its ‘authenticity’ and ‘rawness’, whilst sticking to all the cliches of the American male-crisis novel. Although there’s no denying that the rhythm, the juvenile longing of Kerouac’s prose is sometimes exciting, and even electrifying, the flatness of the female characters cannot but make it as a whole feel two-dimensional (see Alice Walsh’s great article on this, as well as The New Yorker’s opinion piece on Kerouac’s popularity). The plot centres around men wildly thrashing out against a female domestic sphere they perceive as closing in around them, choosing escape over security for the sake, they tell themselves, of their ‘souls’. Only when this domesticity is drawn authentically does this idea become interesting; and here it is not. If you want a better book about a desperate desire for something more, then read Zora Neale Hurston‘s amazing novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Same dissatisfaction, same passion, more tenderness, thought, and feeling.
Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad Talking of meaningless talk about ‘souls’, step up Joseph Conrad. Reading a few of Chinua Achebe‘s essays and speeches, makes this choice feel particularly righteous. This is one of those books that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, a faint feeling of disgust or frustration. In 2003, Botswanan scholar Peter Mwikisa concluded the book was “the great lost opportunity to depict dialogue between Africa and Europe; I’m tempted to agree. The depiction of Congo as a place peopled with savages, with “rudimentary souls” is dangerous mythologism. But, to judge aside from the possible/probably racism, the book itself is also just a heavy, dark, intense read that, like both the others on this list, seems self-indulgent and ambiguous to the point of confusion. On the plus side… it’s short?!
Wuthering Heights Emily Brontë You are either a Brontë or an Austen fan. It’s like Marmite: you can’t be both. I sit firmly on the side of Lizzie Bennett, of Emma Woodhouse, of headstrong heroines with high standards and witty narration. Wuthering Heights is the total opposite of this. If Catherine Earnshaw lived today, she’d be the vampire friend; the one who always finishes a night out weeping at you in a corner, deliberately grinding on strangers to make her possessive partner jealous, or who just leaves you because she’s spotted some much cooler/fitter people. The extreme emotions are too much for me (in particular love that borders on necrophilia – looking at you here Heathcliff). It’s the categorisation of this as one of literature’s greatest love stories that makes this a disappointment, as with its sister book Jane Eyre. As a critique on Victorian class systems: great. As a romance: awful.