Books to have an existential crisis to

From Sheila Heti to Douglas Cooper we pick ten of the best writers asking the big questions

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This week marked Dave Eggers’ new release, the lengthily named Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?, a cool eight months after his equally short-noticed The Circle. The skinny book focuses on a resentful kidnapper who holds six people – all acquaintances whose significance becomes more and more obvious as the narrative progresses – hostage. The situation becomes a backdrop for what the NY Times said were some pretty heavy-handed examinations of the Big Questions, mainly ‘Why is life so unfair?’ and ‘Fate – what? Why?’

Eggers’ use of mental breakdown as a starting point to examine the social/cultural/economic/philosophical condition is nothing new; subjectivity is a slippery reality, and writers have been slapping unanswerable questions onto it for a long time. When done right, books can make the deep confusion of a mental breakdown make a lot of sense. 

FAMILY TIES BY CLARICE LISPECTOR

In this tight collection by the beloved, newly resurged Brazilian writer, girls are obsessive, housewives’ lives are upturned by small, random happenings, intense emotional lives are examined to the point of madness. Lispector’s interest in existentialism is evident, and she translates the very male Camus and Sartre into the female experience with grace. 

Clarice Lispector

SELF-HELP BY LORRIE MOORE

What is termed ‘self-help’ here is more like ‘elegant and eviscerating statements of unsolvable self problems’; Moore’s debut short story collection earned her a reputation for bitter truths served atop the realities of existential crises, often relationship-related. Her endings are painfully dissatisfying, in a ‘hurts so good’ kind of way. 

Lorrie Moore

THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM BY DAVID FOSTER WALLACE

In which concurrent high-jinksian nervous breakdowns build in both protagonist and formal elements to finally come together in a climactic post-modern linguistic failure. Wallace described the debut as being sort of autobiographical, ‘the sensitive tale of a sensitive young WASP who's just had this midlife crisis that’s moved him from coldly cerebral analytic math to a coldly cerebral take on fiction... which also shifted his existential dread from a fear that he was just a 98.6°F calculating machine to a fear that he was nothing but a linguistic construct.’

DFW broom of the system

ATMOSPHERIC DISTURBANCES BY RIVKA GALCHEN

Psychology professionals seem particularly given to psychological breakdown in literature. What this says about the therapy professionals of the world we can’t say, but what it says for literature is: intelligently reflexive! Satisfyingly deep! Characters that are sure of themselves but that you can’t be sure of! Galchen’s debut novel is a slippery examination of the lengths between subjectivity and objectivity, imagination and truth through a psychiatrist who wakes up one day sure that his beautiful, young wife has been replaced by an identical impersonator. ‘Who can ever really know about anyone’s happiness, even one’s own?’

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THE VERIFICATIONIST BY DONALD ANTRIM

We experience this psychological break through the eyes of the increasingly unhinged protagonist, whose advanced psychological vocabulary sheds an analytical light on both himself and his colleagues, with whom he’s enjoying a biannual pancake dinner. Tom’s reality becomes steadily questionable as his psychoanalysis snowballs into a transcendental/horrifying release of repressed emotions, and it’s funny, which cuts the sickening poignancy that all too often characterises the ambiguous ends of so many nervous breakdown novels. 

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DURING MY NERVOUS BREAKDOWN I WANT TO HAVE A BIOGRAPHER PRESENT BY BRANDON SCOTT GORRELL

This poetry collection’s title says a lot about its contents: Gorrell writes about the life online, including the particularly modern desire to have life recorded and broadcast to followers, etc. That this priority has likely contributed to the nervous breakdowns being and to be recorded is, well – that’s how it is. 

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HOW SHOULD A PERSON BE? BY SHEILA HETI

Heti’s ‘novel from life’ traces a female writer in her twenties as she separates from her husband and deals with the difficult stuff of life: friendship, becoming an artist, ancestry, sleeping with assholes that literarily symbolise some deeper oppression, e.g., ‘Enjoy what you can of a life without the magnificent cock of Israel.’ The existential questioning and ultimate confusion is quieter here (generally; that quote’s a brief foray into anger), but that doesn’t mean it’s any closer to closure. 

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AMNESIA BY DOUGLAS COOPER

In which a magnetic stranger begins raconteuring to a librarian set to wed in 4 hours and the power of the disturbing, fractured world he creates keeps said librarian a nervous bachelor. Cooper’s first novel is as magnetic and compelling as the story it contains; doom seemingly relegated to the past progresses steadily into the present, as it becomes clear that the mental anguish of back then is still unsettled. 

Douglas Cooper

PLAY IT AS IT LAYS BY JOAN DIDION

Play It As It Lays almost ties The Bell Jar for quintessential female breakdown narrative – it’s not just men who grapple with the harsh realities of existence! Indeed, Maria’s inner turmoil is a particularly female one. The narrative takes place when she’s in the throes of recovering from a previous breakdown, and Didion’s calm, clear prose makes it painfully easy to crumble along with Maria, the only solace ultimately being the resolve to ‘keep on playing’ in spite of all that’s happened to her.

 

Joan Didion

WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME BY MARGE PIERCY

This novel’s end could be an epigraph for the entire list: ‘I'm a dead woman now too. (...) But I did fight them. (...) I tried.’ Is that not the nature of existential crisis? Piercy’s cult feminist sci-fi classic depicts the struggle against systemic powerlessness in heartbreaking fashion: when the protagonist Connie envisions (or hallucinates – it’s unclear) two possibilities for the future, she’s spurred to violently fight for the utopian, rights-for-the-oppressed one. As usual, it’s unclear whether the protagonist or the world is what’s breaking down.

Marge Piercy
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