What is it? It turns out to be a harder question to answer than I first thought. I'm not talking about horrific, or disturbing, or violent--such books (and I'm talking about fiction here, because otherwise the question becomes all too easy to answer) are a cinch for most of us to stomach, and are in fact popular. Stephen King, Cormac McCarthy. Blood Meridian may be shocking, but it isn't going to bum you out. Well--for a little while, it will. But it is alien, and you can characterize it, in your mind, as a fantasy, and detach yourself from its bloody charms.
The obvious choice is the collected works of Virginia Woolf, of course, with particular attention to Jacob's Room, Mrs. Dalloway, and To The Lighthouse. The latter's middle section, that brief but incredibly detailed description of the empty house, with ivy crawling in the windows and soldiers dying far away, is quite the heartbreaker. I'm about halfway through Out Stealing Horses, and it too is definitely in the running.
I'm tempted to say Carver, but nah. There is ironic distance there, and this is not a bad thing. That's where the art is, in Carver. This month, all of David Foster Wallace seems unbearably sad, but perhaps that's just his death imposing itself over the work. From the next room, Rhian has shouted "The Velveteen Rabbit!", and so as long as we're doing children's books, allow me to throw in Charlotte's Web and the shamefully obscure Miss Osborne-The-Mop, a copy of which, in the early days of the internet, I managed to find for Rhian after her years of fruitless searching, thus scoring some serious marriage cred. (Knowing me, I probably spent it inside of a week.)
Indeed, children's literature, historically, has been a haven for gentle misery; when a book for adults is sad, it's called a "tearjerker" and is thought to be manipulative and in poor taste. For some reason, though, it's OK to choke up the kids.
Help me out here. What's the saddest book in the world?