Fiction About Addiction

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Tracy Shapley Towley

Staff Writer

Tracy is a freelance copywriter, all-around ne’er do well, very-adult graduate of the University of Iowa, and occasional waterer of plants. Her hobbies include writing fiction, reading fiction, mixing together various flavors of soup, and typing letters to her friends on an old red typewriter that doesn't have a working period so all sentences must end in questions marks or exclamation points? She has read every Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and has a lot of thoughts on them. Her old Iowa farmhouse is shared by her husband Sean, a pair of cats, a pair of dogs, and the ghost of Kurt Vonnegut.

When I tell people I’m sober a typical response is, “Good for you!” and then I’m like, “No, actually, it’s good for you! I’ve been standing here talking to you for four minutes and I haven’t vomited on your shoes once! Congrats!”

In my years of sobriety, I’ve read a whole hell of a lot of novels that deal with addiction. Not surprisingly, some of them were good and some of them were so infuriating that I had no choice but to look at their covers when I was done and say, “You’re infuriating!”

There’s a very long list of things that I’d rather fiction about addiction didn’t do, but today I’m going to complain about the most dangerous of the lot: Books that glamorize addiction. It’s certainly true that in my first few years of drinking and using, I thought it was all about to get really exciting any minute! But the truth is that, though I did have adventures and I did once wake up with a brand new couch in my living room, with no memory of having procured it, on a day to day basis my addiction was fucking boring. I woke up, did the absolute minimum I had to do to be able to get drunk and/or high, got drunk and/or high, went to bed, woke up, did the absolute minimum, etc. etc.  So here are four books that do a decent job of unboringly showing just how boring addiction can be.

candyCandy by Mian Mian

If I’d read this when I was newly sober I may have jumped off a bridge, or at least tripped out my front door on the way to my support group, because this is not a happy book. Boy howdy! It is, however, a great example of the mundaneness of being an active addict. The book follows a youngish woman living in Shanghai, in search of a glamorous life. At first there’s perhaps an argument to be made that it’s glamorous, she’s got her pouty musician boyfriend and she’s staying out all night spending her dad’s money, but as her boyfriend’s addiction goes downhill, she picks up a drug problem of her own and then picks up a whole cast of characters with their own substance abuse problems. Their entire lives essentially revolve around finding ways to get high, getting high, sleeping off their high, rinse, repeat. This books seems to do a good job showing what a certain segment of modern-day Shanghai is like, though, since I haven’t been there, the only proof I have of that is the fact that the Chinese government immediately banned this book upon its publication.

junkyJunky by William S. Burroughs

This is an undoubtedly and unapologetically crass look at drug addiction and alcoholism. While it is a novel, Burroughs was not shy about the fact that he was a heroin addict. Originally published under a different name, Junky is an impactful cautionary tale but not in that “ultimately redeemed itself” sort of way. No, the protagonist in this book did not get sober, well not permanently and, for the most part, this was not a book about people struggling with their addiction – it was about people living with it. Every once in a while there was a glimmer that they didn’t want to live that way but for the most part it was simply a way of life for them. A boring, boring way of life.

drinkingDrinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp

I appreciated the way Knapp compared getting sober with ending a relationship. It was true for me – I had a much stronger relationship with alcohol than I did with any human being the last few years of my drinking. And even though it was literally killing me, and I knew I would get nothing out of my life if I didn’t quit, I still grieved the loss of it. I imagine it’s similar to someone getting out of a bad marriage. They know it’s bad, they know it’s better to be out of it, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy or that their feelings aren’t complicated. The boring devil you know and all that. Knapp did a good job portraying that particular part of getting sober – the part where you desperately miss a thing you’ve grown to hate – which, in my experience, is one of the more baffling things for non-addicts to understand.

rachels-holidayRachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes

Here’s a great example of a book I wasn’t crazy about in general but it does a better job than anything I’ve ever read describing the complicated process of living in denial and eventually, slowly, sort-of getting out of it. Rachel, the protagonist, is a perpetual victim who doesn’t think she has a problem – everyone else is the problem, obviously. It takes a good 300-400 pages for her to come around to anything at all resembling self-awareness and those pages are challenging and aggravating to read. That said, I appreciate the slow process and the fact that the author dug deeply into these issues instead of glossing over them with a singular “Aha!” experience when the reality is that most addicts I know got sober not because of a singular experience but because of a series of experiences that beat them over the head until they had no choice but to believe the truth.