Book Review: Tales of Woe by John Reed

The feeling that has just manifested in your digestive tract upon hearing something irredeemably awful — that bad-to-worse sinking sensation and the inexplicable need to repeat it — pervades John Reed’s Tales of Woe, just out from MTV Press. The author describes it as the sin-suffering-redemption model of storytelling, minus any cumbersome sin and redemption.
Twenty-five true stories of senseless human suffering accompanied by full color artwork appeal not only to those of us still toting our post-goth adolescent morbidity, but to rubberneckers of all ages. The collection tugs at our fears of the freak disaster (a PVC bouncy castle that first crushes, then poisons) to the dregs of inhumanity (sex trafficking, infanticide, and yes, bestiality). The MO is uncut and unapologetic despair in the human experience — not horror, but horribleness.Tales of Woeaims directly for the viscera, but can’t be written off as a simple sideshow. Reed is a well-practiced satirist, having, in his own words, “mangled Orwell, Shakespeare, Carroll and more,” and now presents what he claims is an older kind of catharsis than “Hollywood catharsis,” where the hero overcomes adversity and we all feel better about ourselves. Nope, this is pure suffering, he says; we read it and feel better about our own, relatively painless lives. I don’t know if I feel better about anything after reading this, but I sure feel different.

It’s hard not to question, however, elbow-deep in the shiny black paper and slick artwork, one’s role as a reader. Sure there is something deeply human about the sharing of suffering, but where does the line between observer and participant fall? At what point do we stop being horrified and start being titillated? Thankfully, Reed’s prose is spare; journalistic enough to secure our status as mortified witnesses, rather than rabid consumers, of agony. If we’re meant to be unsettled on many levels, this is a triumph. Woe is a 25 car pile-up of literary grotesques, enough to keep the Debbie Downer in all of us turning pages, and with no redemption or tidy lessons learned to let us walk away.


Tales of Woe, MTV Press August 2010


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