Fiction has the power to enlighten readers about mental illness and the capacity to inspire hope.
Mental illness has been a steadfast theme in fiction since the first novel of the Western Literary Tradition, Don Quixote. Today, as mental illness continues to lose its stigma in mainstream society, modern writers are providing unique narratives that set out to explore the manifestations of depression, anxiety and other diseases affecting mental health. Here are eight sterling, earnest depictions of mental illness in contemporary fiction.
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
via The Stranger
The most recent entry on this list. Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone chronicles the weight of mental illness on an entire family. When John falls into debilitating depression, his fiancée, Margaret, decides to venture forth. Together they produce three children, one of whom, the eldest, Michael, inherits the unsoundness of mind that stymied John from prosperity. Haslett has crafted one of the most nuanced and heartfelt depictions of depression and anxiety in contemporary fiction with his portrayal of Michael. The story spans decades and crosses continents, but the character of Michael is timeless and recognizable regardless of region. With sharp, piercing prose that is at once imaginative and grounded, Haslett allows readers to enter the harrowing mind of one afflicted with mental illness. Michael is a fictional character like no other, a tragic, haunting man who bristles with the trappings of misunderstood hope.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
The magnum opus of a brilliant writer who later became a casualty to mental illness himself. A maximalist narrative set in an alternate North America consumed by entertainment. The narrative juxtaposes a rehabilitation center and a tennis academy for young prodigies and delivers the Incandenzas, an uproariously solemn family. Known for its daunting length (nearly 1000 pages with an additional 100 or so in minuscule font footnotes), Infinite Jest is a reading event not to be taken lightly. For those brave and dedicated souls, the novel offers many rewards. Some say laughter is the best medicine, and there is plenty to be had here. When the final page is turned, laughter is shown to be a concealer for pain. Wallace’s 1996 masterpiece redefined what a novel could be. Sentences whir and buzz, their fluidity apparent but foreign. This seminal novel comments on society in a way only Wallace could, and all throughout, if you read incredibly closely, profound sadness radiates from the page. A beautiful, staggering work of creative gymnastics that can act as a remedy for sadness and catalyst for mental illness awareness.
All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
Young adult novels often tackle gritty and sensitive issues, including mental illness. Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places is a prime example of a YA novel that deals with tragedy without devolving into melodrama. The story of Theodore Finch, a young man obsessed with the idea of how he might end his own life, and Violet Markey, a young woman eager to escape the agony of her sister’s death, is a tale of two lives converging to mutually benefit one another. While it holds true as a teenage romance, it becomes something more than a feel-good story about climbing out of a dark abyss. Most significantly, Theodore and Violet represent the power of support in times of need. A novel for young readers and adults alike that showcases the capacity and power of someone to lean on.
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
via Penguin Random House
Focused on the aftermath of succumbing to mental illness, Clay Jensen is one of the 13 reasons why Hannah Baker commits suicide. Through Clay’s perspective, readers walk in the shoes of a victim of an untamed mind to better understand why some feel as if the only way out of the hardships of life is an early death. Luminous storytelling and fine pacing make Jay Asher’s young adult novel soar. Thirteen Reasons Why demonstrates how it’s not always a single catalyst that spurs suicide but a multitude of elements at play. Notably, Asher portrays Hannah as a victim without a singular perpetrator, relaying the message that sometimes a person may get lost without ever having received wrong directions. A cathartic narrative with an emphasis on future prevention of similar tragedies, Thirteen Reasons Why excels as a cautionary tale.
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
The rock star writer of Japan, Murakami has made a career out of interiority and introspective, reflective narratives. Norwegian Wood was his breakthrough novel, and today it stands up as his best work on the unsettled mind. Through Toru Watanabe, readers retrace steps through a time of civil unrest against the established order of Japan. While Watanabe is more empathetic than maligned himself, he is utilized as a canvas for the diverse cast of characters touched by mental illness, suicide and unbridled loss. As always, Murakami’s prose is deeply visual in cadence and robust in self-awareness. His characters have many layers, and throughout the narrative, he methodically peels them apart, revealing truths about the unrestful human mind.
The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
via Sarah Crichton Books
Most will recognize this as the Oscar-nominated film by the same title starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. And while the adaptation was widely praised, it’s the source material that truly encapsulates quirkiness and captures charm. The story of Pat and Tiffany working together to compete in a dance competition may seem like only a minor plot. Yet it’s the small things that are sometimes the most profound and revealing. Quick gives readers a glimpse into the life of bipolar disorder with Pat, and PTSD with Tiffany. Their personalities clash at times and complement beautifully in other cases. Another example of mental illness as a beacon of hope, The Silver Linings Playbook balances comedy alongside drama, painting a familiar picture for some.
Lowboy by John Wray
John Wray’s 2009 novel is unique in that it tackles a sector of mental illness that is often extremely misunderstood. The story of Will Heller, 16-year-old paranoid schizophrenic, in search of a solution for global warming is an admirably handled depiction of a mental illness that remains on the fringe of what’s acceptable to discuss when talking about mental illness. Wray bounces Will’s frantic narrative against that of Violet, Will’s mother, who desperately pursues ensuring her son is okay — at least as okay as he can be given his mental state. While it may be an insurmountable task to fully comprehend what goes on in the mind of a schizophrenic without being subjected to the disease yourself, Lowboy is one of the best available modern fiction case studies on the affliction.
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
via Epic Reads
The deepest known point of the Earth is at the southern tip of the Mariana Trench by the Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean. This geographical aspect sets up the alternate world for Caden Bosch, the protagonist of Neal Shusterman’s young adult novel Challenger Deep. In Caden’s everyday life, he is a teenager constantly afraid that every one of his classmates is out to get him, and aboard the ship plummeting to the deepest depths, he is perpetually fearful of mutiny. The vessel’s descent acts as a metaphorical nod to his eroding mental state. It’s a narrative about obsession, paranoia and anxiety. In the realm of mental illness, Shusterman’s National Book Award–winning story illustrates a timely portrait of obsessive compulsive disorder. A tale of split personalities, Challenger Deep acts as a pendulum, swaying back and forth between the real and the imagined.