Shock Value

I don't consider myself someone who is shocked easily- I mean, I've been a public school teacher for like fifteen years, over a decade of which has been with high school students. That being said, there have been some notable moments as a reader where I've been pretty shocked, for various reasons, whether it be the context of the story, my age, or the extent of the vulgarity. 

My age, which directly corresponds to my naïveté, is of course something to be taken into consideration. I read John Grisham's A Time to Kill when I was probably eleven or twelve- I had absolutely no idea that people sexually assaulted children. I remember reading this on Christmas Eve, late at night while everyone was sleeping, the juxtaposition of this sad surprise and the gifts from "Santa" under the tree (I didn't still believe in him then, I wasn't that innocent) notable. A random mass market paperback that I believe was called Shank informed my very young self what a "glory hole" was in a prison- again, I was probably like eleven and had used my allowance money to buy this book at Wal-Mart. Lest us not forget Flowers in the Attic where I learned what incest was- are we seeing a theme with all of my young literary surprises? 

In college, my shock of a different variety; here the shock was the challenge. I read difficult texts in my IB program in high school, but I remember taking a Russian Literature class as a freshman and being blown away by the rhetoric that juniors and seniors were using to discuss Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. I was also shocked by the sheer volume of reading I'd be forced to do in a week, something that sounds pretty darn wonderful now. 

As an fully-cooked adult, true bookish shocks are few and far between. Chuck Palahniuk definitely comes to mind, one of his short stories about a young man who loses one of his most dear appendages to a pool vacuum being one such example. I haven't read much of Palahniuk's recent works, but I remember grappling with this idea when I read him- when does shock move from a strategic tool to a gimmick? He constantly towed the line, sometimes crossing over, sometimes being strategic and brilliant.  

Over the weekend I read Lisa Taddeo's newest release, her novel Animal, and I felt similar. As a whole I thought it was excellent; her examination of a severely damaged woman's psyche captivated me from the first page. By the end, the shock value had been laid on a little thick though, including the scene outside at the end (I don't want to spoil it). Her use of this device has range, though, and isn't all coming from a place of purely gore. We're floored by her financial decisions, her use of men, her reactions, her emotions, her sexuality, honesty, physicality, and background. The shocks are meant to unsettle you and force you to actively decide whether you will be judgmental or empathetic.

As a whole, I see shock the same way as I see most of other technique a writer uses; it has to be done well to be effective. If the placement doesn't pack a punch the impact will be negligible, while too much comes off as immature and cheap. I think Taddeo, while laying on a little thick at times, still manages to end up ahead. 

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