Misery Loves Company: Literary Postgrads Who Are More Miserable Than You
It’s a cliché and it’s also way too real: Whether you call it Hannah Horvath syndrome or a quarter-life crisis, there’s something about graduating from college that’s enough to turn your world upside down. Maybe you haven’t landed your dream job yet, or you just miss your friends. Maybe, without the structure of classes and homework and consistent feedback, you’ve found yourself adrift in a massive early-twenties existential crisis. Life right after graduation can be confusing and weird, but at least books depict it correctly instead of sugar-coating things. Have some schadenfreude with your graduation celebrations: Now that you don’t have required reading anymore, dive into these books about postgrads who are just as unhappy as you are.
Mysteries of Pittsburgh was Michael Chabon’s first book; he started it when he was just 21, and not even out of college himself. But before this tidbit of information sends you into a tailspin fueled by your own perceived literary inadequacies, consider the content of the book itself.
Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a postgrad book in the truest sense of the word: It’s about graduating and being confused. Art isn’t sure if he’s attracted to men, women, or both; he doesn’t know where he fits in the adult world; and he doesn’t know how to earn his father’s approval. Even if your problems aren’t the same as Art’s, muddling through his misadventures might soothe your anxiety.
Hannah Horvath has nothing on Madeleine Hanna. Jeffrey Eugenides’ latest novel opens on Brown graduation, where Madeleine, Mitchell Grammaticus, and Leonard Bankhead try to kickstart their professional careers as well as navigate their twisted little love triangle. As an English major, Madeleine is particularly interested in the marriage plot in 19th-century literature.
Metafiction ensues: Madeleine interrogates the marriage plot in her own life and pursues a turbulent relationship with Leonard, who struggles with bipolar disorder (and the side effects of his medications). Meanwhile, Mitchell is convinced that he’s meant to marry Madeleine, yet her continued rejection spurs him to strike off for India to cope. Compared to these guys, maintaining your college relationships should be a breeze.
“Here you are again. All messed up and no place to go,” reads the first chapter of Bright Lights, Big City. Jay McInerney’s narrative—about a young fact-checker at a magazine that appears to be The New Yorker—reads like a before-its-time LCD Soundsystem song, minus any trace of exuberance.
The unnamed protagonist is desperately unhappy at work, has a rather serious cocaine habit, and is coping with his wife leaving him. The parties, the drugs, and the prestigious job aren’t adding up to anything, and he doesn’t know how to change that. Bright Lights, Big City will ring true to postgrads who feel like they’re faking it personally and professionally, and are wondering when things will improve.
If you lie awake at night wondering if you’re still going to be best friends with your college roommate in five or 10 years, then this book is probably only going to fuel your insomnia. Iris Smyles, insufferable NYU undergraduate, is financially irresponsible, socially exhausting, and infuriatingly naive about how the world works and her place in it.
But as the book progresses, Iris grows into a wiser young woman who learns to take responsibility for herself and her actions, and to pursue what she cares about. Along the way, she makes and loses friends, and meditates on her relationships with men and how they’ve shaped her. If you can put up with Iris in the beginning, this book is a powerful and generously-written statement about the passage of time and the difficulty of becoming someone you can look at in the mirror every morning.
If you wake up each day dreading facing your manuscript (or, worse, your nonexistent manuscript), then Tao Lin’s Taipei might feel a little too real. That said, this semi-autobiographical novel has been heralded by some as the work that truly marks his arrival. Protagonist Paul is out of college, struggling to make it as a writer, and abusing every substance he can get his hands on (Klonopin, anyone?).
Paul sort of floats through New York City in a drug-addled haze, reading Internet comments, wearing his MacBook Pro like an appendage, and feeling profoundly bored by everything and everyone. Lin’s prose is sparse and unsentimental (as though he’s conserving characters in a tweet), but his tribulations may lend ennui-afflicted postgrads some self-awareness.
While A Heartbreaking Work isn’t explicitly a postgrad book, it is a book about what happens to a young man when adulthood is thrust on him very, very suddenly. Dave Eggers’ memoir deals with the death of his parents and his ensuing existential crisis as he wrestles with caring for his younger brother, Toph. The two brothers leave their hometown of Lake Forest, Illinois, and strike out for California, where Dave raises Toph as best he can.
The book’s high point comes about midway through, when Eggers writes an account of a casting interview for MTV’s The Real World and makes a plea to the reader (and producers): His youth is beautiful, he tells them, and his is a story worth following. This book’s title is considerably less hyperbolic than you might guess; Eggers ultimately tells a moving story about family, youth, and transitioning to “adulthood,” whatever that means.