If you enjoy morally upstanding protagonists, you might want to stop reading this right now and go pick up, oh, I don't know, The Kite Runner.
However, if you're anything like me, you'll love a book that offers you a frontrow seat to a world of questionable decisions and ulterior motives. The books on this list don't merely touch upon the seven deadly sins — they are books defined by lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. The characters in them aren't necessarily good people, but they do provide for entertaining and insightful reading.
1. Lust: The Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
If your heart has even been broken by an obsessive, feral love, you will relate to Carson's book. It's both a novel and a poem, unconventional in style but familiar in theme. Carson takes inspiration from the Greek myth of Geryon and Hercules, reimagining their relationship as a destructive, consuming love affair. Hercules doesn't kill Geryon; he breaks his heart. Even if you don't read poetry, even if you're not interested in Greek mythology, lines like “When I desire you a part of me is gone” will haunt you.
2. Gluttony: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg
At 60 years old, Edie Middlestein weighs more than 300 pounds. She suffers from diabetes so severe that she must wear stents in both legs. The law firm where she's worked for decades has let her go, handing her a large severance to shut her up about their discriminatory reasons for firing her face. Even more upsetting than health and career woes is that Richard Middlestein, Edie’s husband of more than 30 years, is leaving her. Her obsession with food has become too much for him to handle, and he cannot sit back and watch as his wife eats herself to death. The Middlesteins is not a prejudiced or cruel take on gluttony. Rather, it speaks to the complexities of loving your vice.
3. Greed: American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Say what you will about Ellis, but the man knows how to write about greed. All his books, from Less Than Zero to The Rules of Attraction, take place in a world of excess, but it’s American Psycho that truly captures the indulgence of greed. The novel is set in Manhattan during the late 1980s and tells the story of Patrick Bateman, a young, attractive, wealthy investment banker. Patrick spends his days on Wall Street and his evenings in elite nightclubs, snorting cocaine (greed’s drug of choice). Oh, and he kills people in deeply sadistic and complex ways. Don’t confuse Patrick’s murders for wrath, though. It’s still greed, just in a more violent fashion. Patrick Bateman wants it all, and he’s willing to do anything to have everything.
4. Sloth: The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland
Coupland’s novel centers on Roger and Bethany, employees of a Staples office supply store. Roger is a middle-aged alcoholic, dealing with his recent divorce, and Bethany is a goth 20-something. The two form an unlikely friendship, based mostly on a mutual interest in ruminating on just how hard life is. Of course, they do absolutely nothing to make it easier. Early in the novel, Bethany tells Roger what exactly she thinks is wrong with him, saying, "You changed only a little bit and only for a little while. You lacked the courage to follow through on the criminal promise of your teens, and you were too lazy to become a genuinely good person." The characters in The Gum Thief aren’t too lazy to get out of bed or go to work — they’re too lazy to become complete people.
5. Wrath: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
A Clockwork Orange presents a harrowing future, where criminals run the night, raping, killing and destroying whomever and whatever they decide must go. It’s told through the perspective of Alex, who speaks candidly about the social pathology he and his friends engage in. Alex isn’t merely angry — he’s wrathful. His is a rage with no purpose. Even if you’ve seen the film, it’s worth picking up the book for a better look inside Alex’s mind. Perhaps you get upset when your roommate leaves dishes in the sink, but you’ve never experienced vexation close to A Clockwork Orange.
6. Envy: Was She Pretty? by Leanne Shapton
One of the most curious things about romance is that it can create the delusion that nobody came before this love — but, of course, that’s just a delusion. There were other people before this person. There was your first girlfriend. There was the guy you dated in college. There was that one-night stand. Questions surface about the mysterious people known as "exes." Shapton's graphic novel shows how questions and curiosities about the people who came before us can quickly turn us into green-eyed monsters. Female envy is a tricky subject to write about, but Shapton's unnamed narrator doesn't chastise the women who came before her. She is in jealous awe of these smart, uber-hip, stunning women with names like Siobhan and Ghislaine. Was She Pretty? is a quick read that captures the resentment and self-doubt that arises thanks to the ex.
7. Pride: The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Pride is the trickiest of the sins. After all, if you’ve accomplished something great, shouldn’t you feel proud? Shouldn’t you be happy that your team won or that your boss recognized your hard work? Of course, but there is a limit. It’s a limit that the characters in Tartt’s novel reach and surpass. The narrator, Richard Papen, arrives at Hamden College and is quickly seduced by a group of students, all more cultured and self-assured than Richard could ever dream to be. As Richard becomes closer to them, he learns about a terrible secret they’ve been harboring. The characters in The Secret History are able to behave so horribly not because of their wealth or intellect, but because of their pride. They receive such a deep amount of satisfaction from their own achievements that they are unable to differentiate their moral achievements from their immoral ones.
Let's face it: Anybody who says they haven't succumbed to one (or all) of the seven sins is lying, either to you or themselves. Humans sin; it's what we do. We eat too much and spend entire weekends locked in our apartments, streaming Netflix and ordering more Seamless. We wish we had what somebody else had and let that desire consume us. Hopefully, though, we eventually realize the impact of our actions and accept that just because something feels good doesn't mean it is good.
Reading about sin provides for an edifying experience. It's a manual for how not to be. These books offer a vantage point that actual living is incapable of providing — at least not without penance.
Michelle King grew up in South Florida and now lives in Brooklyn. Her contributions have appeared on BULLETT, Refinery29, xoJane and The Huffington Post. Harriet M. Welsch is still her role model and probably always will be.
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