It’s difficult to disappear into your own grief when you’ve inherited responsibility for a Great Dane, particularly one in mourning for the very person you’re lacking. That said, it’s awfully easy for the unnamed narrator of Sigrid Nunez’s intimate novel to wind herself up in repetitive recollections of her late mentor (to whom she’s speaking, ostensibly, throughout the story). Those memories are fascinating and often hilarious—there’s a lot of deliciously bitchy, inside-baseball reflection on the literary world here, as both Nunez’s main character and the companion she lost are writers—but they’re also symptoms of something much bigger than one loss. The cure for that will take your breath away.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation
Ottessa Moshfegh has no patience for likable loners: consider her debut novel, Eileen, with a title character she herself calls “repulsive.” In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Moshfegh’s unnamed anti-heroine is as privileged and attractive (at least in theory) as Eileen is luckless and bilious, but she’s just as difficult to stomach. She has no interest in stomaching anyone else, so she marshals her resources to hibernate in a chemically induced stupor for 12 months; when something isn’t working, the first move is to unplug it and plug it back in, right? My Year of Rest and Relaxation is in absolutely no danger of being a feel-good read, but it skewers the concept of self-care with much-needed gut-punches of candor.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine
The Read it Forward team wasn’t alone in falling for Eleanor Oliphant: Gail Honeyman’s instantly iconic introvert was snapped up for silver-screen treatment back in 2017, and her story has been a smash hit with book clubs all over the world. Keep in mind that the delighted buzz and literary triumph swirls around a character who could all too easily have been tragic: Honeyman told the Guardian that she wrote her stoic heroine the way she did to emphasize that though she had a “fairly catastrophic start” (which we won’t spoil), “Eleanor is the agent of her own life.” She’s neither self-pitying nor a victim, and the grim history she unspools in the course of telling her tale isn’t her future. It’s immensely satisfying to root for her as she claws her way out of her coping mechanisms.
Compared to Brontë-sister piledrivers like Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Villette might come as a bit of a shock: it’s moor-, madness-, and (almost) mystery-free. Lucy Snowe leaves mischance behind in England to become a teacher at a girls’ boarding school in the fictional French-speaking city of Villette, develops feelings for a difficult colleague, might or might not encounter a spectral nun at a few points… and that’s about it. Villette is a stunner by virtue of how gracefully and indelibly Brontë brings us into Lucy’s emotional world; its walls are thick and its furnishings are arranged just so, but her psychology is as seismic as it is understated. If you’re in the mood for actual histrionics, try telling a Brontë superfan you’ve heard Villette is a dud (while shielding your head and neck).
The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson
It’s tempting to recommend Walden in a roundup like this one, but let’s be honest: Henry David Thoreau’s “isolated” cabin was just a mile from Emerson’s house, he was close enough to Concord to hear the local church bells, and his mother did his laundry and brought him snacks (seriously). Emerson’s “Self Reliance” (included in Essential Writings) rises to the level of a pick not because he disdains society as “a join-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater,” but because it’s worth reconsidering what paeans to individualism mean right now, when we have a moral obligation to avoid literal contact with one another in the context of collective good. Is 2020 the year to fling Emerson across the room, mid-essay? Perhaps. It’s certainly the year to reevaluate things we might have thought we knew to be true.
Good Morning, Midnight
If you’re entertaining thoughts of tackling Emily St. John Mandel’s (utterly wonderful) Station Eleven and aren’t entirely sure you’re in the headspace for a fully realized post-pandemic world just now, consider Lily Brooks-Dalton’s Good Morning, Midnight. It too features a world-altering catastrophe, but it focuses on the near-airless experiences of two secluded figures. Eighty-year-old Augustine is the sole researcher who refused to abandon his Arctic post when calamity struck, and Sullivan was a Jupiter-bound astronaut who might now be lost in space for good. The plot is high-concept, but the story is most captivating in the way Brooks-Dalton deepens the silence around her solitary-but-paired characters. Absence is the real speaker here.
Desolation Angels is, in fairness, not an entirely unpopulated book; the majority of it, in fact, takes place after Kerouac—er, “Jack Duluoz,” his semi-fictional alter ego—returns to civilization after spending 65 days helming a one-man fire lookout atop Desolation Peak in Washington State’s North Cascade Mountains. That said, those two months and the year that followed came just before On the Road made him a household name; this prose-poem, zen-journal-made-public account of that time is the last of Kerouac before he became the Beat Generation’s unofficial portraitist. Is it self-indulgent? Yes. Is it the sort of magical writing that can simultaneously illuminate the mundane and make one desperately glad one doesn’t have a roommate? Also yes.
Writer, editor, and critic Carmela Ciuraru divides this wide-ranging poetry collection into six sub-themes: On the Virtues of Solitude, On Absence and Longing, On Loneliness and Despair, On Mind and Soul, Alone Among Others, and In the Stillness of Night. Today it’s buoying to read these lines from John Ashbery’s “My Philosophy of Life”:
I confess I can move no farther along this train of thought—
something’s blocking it. Something I’m
not big enough to see over. Or maybe I’m frankly scared.
What was the matter with how I acted before?
But maybe I can come up with a compromise—I’ll let things be
what they are, sort of.
The absence of companions can be marvelous: to be alone with one’s thoughts is ennobling and productivity-boosting, if centuries of ascetic saints and Very Serious Authors are to be believed. It can also be hell on earth, if you’re the sort of person who thrives on contact (or is holed up in The Overlook Hotel). Solitude isn’t inherently anything, however, and this roundup reflects that: these writers’ creations are delightful, relatable, stoic, inspirational, insufferable, and even contemptible, as we can be all of those things. Let us introduce you to a few books about loneliness; on the page, heroes and villains alike are excellent company.
Featured Image: @stefiakti/Twenty20