Full disclosure: I started this book when I was laid up in the hospital, high on pain-killers, and recovering from a painful kidney stone (is there any other kind?). I’m not sure if that should predispose me to liking this story or hating it, but there is that factor. I mean, that said, as soon as I started the book, I began raving to my then-fiancee about the brilliance of what I was reading. I still stand by my statement.
I cut a lot of my real literary teeth on Beat writing. From Kerouac to Ginsberg to Ferlinghetti, I’ve chased down just about every bit of writing from that period, and went through my own period of trying to imitate their works. I think it informed a lot of my writing, and I still dream sometimes of doing a full-on beat-style novel, but I figured now is not the time to be so bold and experimental. I mean, why kill a career in its early stages, right?
Well, Penelope Crowe came along to prove me wrong – that this can be done well and effectively even in a modern context. Seriously, this could proudly stand with a lot of the better Beat works. Have you read William S. Burroughs? I know not many people would classify him as a horror writer, but there are some truly macabre visions in his writings, enough so that I always felt his works were close cousins to the genre, sort of the black sheep of the whole Beat era. For that reason, I find that his works resonated the longest in my soul, once I’d done the whole Kerouac/Ginsberg thing.
I say that because several times when reading 100 Unfortunate Days I got a legit Burroughs vibe. The book starts with such a thing, for God’s sake!:
The pain behind my eye reminds me I have worms in my brain. Not a few, but millions. They have no room to multiply and either dying or boring their way to another part of my head. If a doctor were to ask me what my symptoms were I could say that there is pressure in my skull from an overpopulation of spirochetes. Sometimes I can’t think straight – and I get nervous.
Looking back, I can see now that Burroughs, at his best, evoked the same sense of existential dread that you hear from survivors of schizophrenia – the feeling of not being able to trust the very bedrock of reality upon which we all rely. And that absolutely fascinates me even while it hits the core of dread in my own soul. Crowe brilliantly mines that same material.
Be warned: the story, as such, is not really a story at all, in the traditional sense. There is something of a plot, but a lot of it has to be pieced together from trying to sort through the narrator’s statements and determining which are more likely to be true. In that sense, however, there is a protagonist and an antagonist, that antagonist being mental illness, and you won’t find a more insidious or terrifying monster.
Some people have said the book is too depressing, but I disagree; it’s not all existential dread and depression. There’s a sharp wit at work here, too, and I laughed out loud at a few parts. Parts of the book may be difficult for certain people to take (I hesitated before recommending it to a mentally ill friend for whom certain sections would ring very familiar), but if all of this sounds up your alley and you’re fascinated by peeks behind the curtain like this one, I recommend it. It gets five out of five stars. You can also check out her site here.