It’s Not Quite That Bad, Quite Yet
It happens. You're out of college and working a job or maybe not. You're with the love of your life or with a thousand Twitter followers. It's your quarter-life crisis and you can barely wake up anymore. You need to start making those real decisions but, maybe, later. Here's a few great titles to keep you between the sheets:
The Fall Back Plan by Leigh Stein
This book's the first on my list because it's a title that I've long turned to every time I start to wonder what it is my college degree even bought me. Part Tender is the Night, part Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture, Leigh Stein's first novel is kind of like a coming-of-age tale wrapped up in a suburban mystery. What do you do when you've graduated from Northwestern with a theatre degree and are stuck babysitting for the neighbors next door who are, by the way, going mad? You find out what they're building in there, of course! Luckily you have characters with names like Pickle and Scout to distract you from life along the way.
Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov
Remember the big Russians? Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and all them? Well, I'm here to tell you that a short man named Ivan Goncharov has them all beat with his tale of a similarly small bureaucrat named Oblomov who lives an aimless life devoid of any of the real passions we imagined for ourselves when we were in high school and imagined what being 22 would really be like. Sound familiar? Heed the warning of the somewhat forgotten Russian.
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
This perfectly charming collection of Berlin's short stories was published last year and brings another somewhat forgotten master to your somewhat forgotten dreams. Stories like "Angel's Laundromat," "Tiger Bites," and "Strays" focus on characters who are unable to get away from the loss, pain, and uncertainty that sweeps into life as responsibilities make themselves known like stranger houseguests. Some stories carry long and clotted lives in between their page and others are short as a sneeze. "Everything was somehow always okay," Berlin writes. But, you know, is it?
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Eugenides' third and, as of writing, latest novel tackles terrain somewhat different than his Pultizer-prize winning Middlesex or his Sofia Coppola-adapted The Virgin Suicides. He begins by tagging along with three college friends, a couple with a third wheel who is crushing hard. But Eugenides takes them out of school soon enough and they're struggling with realizing that traveling to the third world isn't everything that it seemed, that even an Ivy League degree won't pay the emotional or literal bills, maybe, or that the college crush you imagined marrying isn't your best fit. Etc. We've been there, Jeff.
Lit by Mary Karr
Mary Karr is a brilliantly capable poet with a few beloved best-selling memoirs under her belt, but it may be that Lit, her third, remains her greatest work yet. Tacking now, hear very early middle-life crisis, there's a reason why Karr is one of those memoirists I go to when I want the unblunted reality of painfully lived experience. In Lit, everything starts to go wrong. Having to kick both a decade of unchecked alcoholism and a first husband to the curb, Karr remains cynical about the easy solutions you can still find on TV. And, hell, she becomes one of her decade's most celebrated memoirists; how's that for inspiration?
Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
Bolaño's a big name and there's no better way to start off your reading list than one of his most popular and not-longest novel. About a plucky and smart 17-year-old who joins a literary group that calls themselves "visceral realists," Savage Detectives is really about trying to find reality amid dreamers, an agenda inside the poetic life. But poetry really is Bolaño's metaphor for the something that is truer than the jobs we work in between waking up and crawling home, for how we fill the small space that so many of us have to meaningful interact with the world around us. Everything Bolaño writes is, in the words of James Wood, "comically plausible" so you know it's good for a laugh or two.
I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
Here's a somewhat old one that's just now become a newfound classic with an Amazon series staring Kevin Bacon and made by the creative genius behind Transparent, Jill Soloway. Like Bolaño, Kraus takes us right into the middle of a world of very smart and well-read people (like me, surely) who begin to realize that a lot about the lives they've settled into isn't quite what they dreamed of in college, Kraus becomes obsessed with another academic named Richard (i.e. Dick) and questions bloom about her marriage to a well-liked filmmaker. Feel a little highbrow for you? Be relieved knowing that Kraus is a failed filmmaker herself and never accomplished much until stumbling into the slacker memoir, the Abbi and Ilana-esuqe tale of dreaming of better things inside our small apartments.
Close to the Knives David Wojnarowicz
Coming home at 3 AM after a vicious night at the club and breathing way too much bitter and hard-to-shake cold air? Eighties counterculture icon David Wojnarowicz has you covered. Close to the Knives is a collection of essays documenting his life in that decade and the ambling punk-scene that it led to, but his taste of the wild life doesn't glam through it like, say, HBO's failed Vinyl did. "I know these feelings aren't genetic or because of chemical imbalances. They were obviously born somewhere, from something."