11 Books That'll Help You Navigate Your Totally Millennial Existential Dilemma
It may not involve shiny red sports car or an illicit affair with your secretary, but the Millennial crisis is all too real (and if you've never heard that phrase before, there's a strong possibility that it's unfamiliar to you because I only coined it about a month ago at the bar after my latest round of WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE drinks with friend).
The more I talk to friends of this generation, the more I hear stories of existential dilemmas, helpless, hopeless, lost feelings that are difficult to work through and harder still to place within a common cultural framework. I mean come on, we've all watched Mad Men — we know what it looks like when a successful fortysomething advertising exec loses his way. But what about when you're just out of school, in the prime of your life, and looking for meaning in all the wrong places?
After years of agonizing over the way forward and walking alongside friends suffering through the same confusion, after trying yoga and meditation, beer, and bad relationships, I've found that books are the surest source of comfort and guidance in anguished, uncertain times. So, if you're feeling lost, hopeless, helpless, unfocused or uncertain about your future, hop off the couch, stash that slanket out of sight, and beeline to the library. These 11 books may be just what you need to navigate through your Millennial OMG moment.
A Room With a View by E.M. Forster
Leaving home to explore the wonders of the great unknown is practically a rite of passage for the aimless young adult, unsure of her place in the world. And, in many ways, E.M. Forester's struggling Victorian protagonist Lucy Honeychurch is no different from the hoards of exchange students who set off every year to explore Europe with the hope of returning home just a little more free. As Lucy encounters a shocking new love affair and runs smack into the stringent expectations of her social circle, she's forced to make difficult choices about who she will love and how she will live. With fortitude, grace, and more than a little angst, Lucy struggles through the same existential dilemmas we all face from time to time, making A Room with a View the perfect way to remind yourself that if she can do it, so can you.
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
Some of us handle our crises with grace and dignity, and some of us head straight to the tattoo parlor after a shot of tequila. If you're more of a "hop on the Harley and leave your troubles in the dust" kind of a girl, you're certain to enjoy Rachel Kushner's brash, bold, bitterly funny story of one young woman's rage against the machine in the sordid SoHo underworld of art, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. If you think a little rebellion might be the best way to shock yourself out of the doldrums and onto the right path, why not test that theory with The Flamethrowers before you waste time and ink in a way you may soon regret.
Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem
Sometimes the struggle for identity and the soul-crushing sting of failure is strictly a family affair. While some of us are lucky enough to luxuriate in the accepting arms of parents and siblings who believe in us no matter what, all too often finding your true calling means walking away from the expectations your family may have foisted upon you. With Dissident Gardens , Jonathan Lethem crafts a family drama of uncommon intimacy with an unexpected twist. When you find yourself unsure of how to reach out on your own while remaining true to your heritage, try a little Lethem on for size — it may just make the way forward a wee bit less frightening.
bad behavior by Mary Gaitskill
National Book Award winner Mary Gaitskill knows a thing or two about acting out. With bad behavior she channels all her anguish into resplendent, raucous tales of rebellion. Gaitskill's Bad Behavior reminds us that acting out to fit in and struggling to find your place in the world are rites of passage — painful, frustrating, fear-inducing ones that might feel just a little less lonely with a book like this on your bedside table.
Speedboat by Renata Adler
Renata Adler's contemporary classic has inspired angsty creative types for more nearly four decades, with devotees as diverse as David Foster Wallace and Elizabeth Hardwick. Adler's feisty, forthright narrator Jen Fain is a journalist on the verge, negotiating the cultural pitfalls of contemporary American and reporting back with a wry wit that never fails to help the medicine go down. Take Adler for a test drive and maybe when the horizon broadens the path forward will simply appear in the distance, after all sometimes seeing it all clearly is as simple as trying on a new perspective.
For Kings and Planets by Ethan Canin
College is practically a breeding ground for existential crises. From intro to philosophy to first year English Lit, from bad roommates to big ideas, university life brings you all the makings of a serious breakdown without necessarily shining a light at the end of that tunnel. Ethan Canin's For Kings and Planets is a timeless tale of friendship forged in the fiery pits of campus life and the difficulty of finding your own path when the trajectories of those around you are so powerful and alluring. If you feel caught up in the tractor beam of too many impressive options and unable to find your own footing, stop and take a breath with For Kings and Planets, by the end of the book making your own way forward might not seem like such a hopeless cause after all.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
There are struggles for identity — and then there is finding out that your boyfriend may have given you a serious venereal disease while you battle to bring him back from the brink of death in a fleabag motel you can just barely afford. Yup. When you find yourself unable to afford a good meal, desperately caring for your self-destructive friends, and fighting to forge a way out of the darkness, take Patti Smith's Just Kids along for the ride and you'll realize that even out of the darkest moments a lifetime of magic and wonder can emerge.
A Gate at The Stairs by Lorrie Moore
Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs offers up so many models for dysfunction and insecurity that no matter your troubles, you're sure to find someone to identify with. Gnawing nimbly at the nexus between one young college girl's search for identity and the struggles of a middle aged mother in the same arena, A Gate at the Stairs is the perfect reminder that discontent and disillusionment can strike at any age, and the best we can do is wind our way through it while remaining true to our pasts and faithful to our futures.
Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion
To my mind there is no literary figure more tragic than Maria Wyeth, who begins Joan Didion's seminal Play It As It Lays with a monologue so heartbreaking that you may just be willing to forgive her many transgressions. Before taking up the reminisces of Maria's friend Helene and ex-husband Carter, Play It As It Lays lingers in the darkness with Maria. In the cloying, caustic pain and struggle of Wyeth's interior world it isn't hard to find scraps of the sorrows and heartbreaks that plague us all. Because pain is more manageable when it is not uniquely our own, because empathy makes us stronger and a good cry can make the clouds obscuring the right choices clear up, Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays is a must-read for the Millennial mired in anguish.
This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes
A.M. Homes' aptly titled This Book Will Save Your Life is both deeply ironic and delightfully earnest. Offering up the tale of a wealthy middle aged man who's entire life is about to slide, almost literally, into the abyss, this quixotic little tale meanders through the most unexpected gullies and up the strangest hills before arriving at a peace and quietude luminous to behold. For a quirky, humorous take on the life crisis, you simply can't do better than Homes.
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
Take yourself out of the ordinary doldrums of a midweek depression and into a world anything but ordinary where the struggles remain the same. Lauren Beukes' supernatural thriller follows a time traveling serial killer doing away with luminous young woman burning with potential, until one of the shining girls survives an attack and goes to work hunting the hunter. Beukes' astonishing novel will not only offer sweet relief from whatever you're working through, but also serve as a timely reminder that sometimes simply surviving is the first step to thriving.
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