7 Books About Worlds Within Worlds

Mark Mayer, author of “Aerialists,” recommends novels with hidden realities

Alice in Wonderland by Sir John Tenniel

Rabbit holes, magic wardrobes, subtle knives — my favorite moments in my favorite books were always when we got to step out from one world into another one, the hidden world that had been here adjoining ours all along. Whatever wackiness or magic waited inside Oz or the Chocolate Factory, it would be hard to find anything more wonderful than that threshold between worlds. The sensation of the mothballs transforming into snow as they crunch underfoot at the back of the wardrobe — that was what I wanted when I wanted a story.

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A world within the world is what all fiction offers, and in such looking-glass moments, we catch a reflection of ourselves, readers, with our heads in one world and our chairs in another. In Julio Cortázar’s tiny, perfect thriller “Continuity of Parks,” it’s the reader’s green armchair that becomes a dangerous portal, the real place toward which an imaginary killer comes tiptoeing, knife in hand. In the One Thousand and One Nights, the happy vertigo of stories within stories within stories quakes the ground of each new world we enter: we’re never certain when a new rabbit hole will open beneath our feet — an effect W. G. Sebald, Jesse Ball, and Rachel Cusk all exploit in novels that, in their own brilliant ways, thread hidden passages among stories and worlds. Even when we put down books like theirs with stories within stories and worlds within worlds, we can’t shake the feeling that there must be new worlds hidden everywhere. “Behind every word a whole world is hidden that must be imagined,” Heinrich Böll says. Seems true to me: every person, place, thing, and word — a chamber of secreted histories.

When I was working on the stories in Aerialists, I started thinking of them as realisms with holes in them. No matter the premise I started from, each story soon enough revealed another reality that peered into it. One character imagined finding a pattern in the kitchen linoleum that would unlock a world he calls The There. Another character created a virtual replica of his lost neighborhood world. Another imagined a portal into her disabled friend’s mind. I’m not sure why my stories kept opening into such alternate worlds — maybe a reality, in order to feel real, requires some vantage outside of itself, just as waking consciousness requires dreams. The list here assembles some of my favorite literary works of worlds within worlds, some of the post-YA portals I’ve loved.

The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish

In 1666, Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, published The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World, a bizarre and delightful work of feminist science fiction and utopian experiment. A young woman kidnapped by a seafaring merchant is shipwrecked at the North Pole. Merchant and crew freeze to death but the young lady, kept alive by “the light of her Beauty, the heat of her Youth,” slips through into another world, ablaze with vibrant stars, that is conjoined to hers pole to pole. There she’s greeted by Bear-men, Fox-men, and Geese-men and made the empress of this new world. As empress, she’s mostly concerned with questions of natural philosophy, which she debates with the Magpie-men and Jackdaw-men, but she also organizes an invasion of her home world, deploying “Fire-stone” to burn down her countrymen’s wooden ships. To be read alongside Daniel Dutton’s brilliant novel about Margaret Cavendish, Margaret the First.

With Margaret the First, Danielle Dutton Offers Readers a Fascinating and Unique Portrait

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is a marvelously surreal and linguistically brilliant novel by Yoruban Nigerian author Amos Tutuola. The narrator, a seven-year-old boy fleeing a slave war, runs into the bush not knowing that this bush is the Bush of Ghosts, “banned to be entered by any earthly person.” He lives there among the ghosts, moving from ghost village to ghost village, befriending burglar-ghosts, having ghost weddings. My favorite ghost is the “flash-eyed mother” of “fearful, dreadful, terrible, curious, wonderful and dirty appearance.” Large as a “vast round hill,” with a mouth that can “swallow an elephant uncut” and eyes that are always “bringing out splashes of fire,” she rules the 13th ghost town where baby-sized ghosts feed her bush animals all day. The bush world is a chaotic mix of Christian and Yoruban imagination, violent, comic, and vibrant.

Tropisms by Nathalie Sarraute

The most bewildering world within the world, strangely and obviously, is one’s own black-box interior. Before it gets refined into conscious thought and emotion, inner life is a weird world of unnamable churning sensations. One of the strangest and subtlest attempts to represent the alien inner world is Nathalie Sarraute’s first book, Tropisms, a beautiful series of spare prose experiments in which she attempts to show the “movements” of our inner weather, movements “hidden under the commonplace, harmless appearance of every instant of our lives.” “These movements,” she explains in a foreword, “slip through us on the frontiers of consciousness in the form of undefinable, extremely rapid sensations. They hide behind our gestures, beneath the words we speak, the feelings we manifest, are aware of experiencing, and able to define. They seemed, and still seem to me to constitute the secret source of our existence, in what might be called its nascent state.” As if this weren’t strange enough, Sarraute then relates these “movements” via scenes of people calling upstairs at dinnertime or window shopping or passing their shabby neighbors on the stairs, using such everyday scenes to evoke the inner world. Sarraute went on to write novels and a bestselling childhood memoir, but she claimed these inner movements were what united all her work.

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell

So Long, See You Tomorrow is a perfect “realism with a hole in it.” The realism is an autofiction about a boy in 1920s Illinois mourning his mother and snubbing a friend whose father has committed suicide (and murder). But in his mourning and regret, the narrator seeks some passage back to the world and life he’d known when his mother was still alive. “The idea that kept recurring to me…was that I had inadvertently walked through a door that I shouldn’t have gone through and couldn’t get back to the place I hadn’t meant to leave.” His reality is a bad Narnia he’s stuck in.

Maxwell’s novel is full of invisible doorways of this kind, between tangent worlds. When the narrator’s father remarries and buys a new house still under construction, the narrator visits the new house after school and plays on the framing, balancing on the beams and passing between the wall studs, performing something metaphysical or counterfactual as he crosses through his future walls: “I had the agreeable feeling, as I went from one room to the next by walking through the wall instead of a doorway, or looked up and saw blue sky through the rafters, that I had found a way to get around the way things were.” As an adult, the narrator connects that magic scaffolding with Giacometti’s delicate sculpture the Palace at 4 A.M., a spare half-built architecture where, he imagines, “What is done can be undone.”

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin’s hero George Orr has a strange condition: what he dreams beco

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Two Vegas Poems by Rose Hunter

Poetry

Rose Hunter

A desultory looking bar, decked with neon signs, presumably in Las Vegas
Ty Nigh, “Atomic Liquor – Fine cocktails,” Las Vegas

Desert View Overlook

 

the chipmunk’s prayer hands & hunched tremble munch
& swipe at whiskers bat-like in front of bikers
their cupped hands rising smoke & fingers
pointing, faces open doors & baby-like smiles

i took the picture, then lost it, somewhere
between the taking & the loading, traffic jams & Vegas

sprawl, the orange
roadwork signs, the brown scenic drive signs
the beige & taupe attraction
signs, follow the switchbacks to the semicircle
of signs throwing a horseshoe shadow against the gray
concrete beyond the ponderosa & piñon
fist-sized kernels, woody green
& brown roses, the Mojave too opens up

the detonation sites at Yucca Flat
Frenchman Flat, the subsidence craters, the playa:

50 times brighter than the sun, hell
burst from the skies torched ancient Joshua trees
their teddy bear & oven-mitted hands

Buster-Jangle, Tumbler-Snapper, Plumbob
Ranger, Latchkey, Sunbeam, Tinderbox

devastatingly beautiful some called it
a letter from home or a firm handshake
from someone you trust

i had blood running out of both ears
out of both nostrils

while on the diving platform at the Last Frontier
the man in a T-shirt, the man
with no shirt; the two men underneath playing ping-pong

the drifting column wavy tentacular & cerebellum
that vies for strangeness with the windpump
& covered wagons no one is looking at
i think of those people also

on Mount Charleston (also) Nivaganti
“where snow sits” the center of creation

with picnic baskets & RVs, children 
station wagons, thermoses, walnut brown
& plastic cups tree-ring-stained with past pourings
the seediness of camping chairs, their squeaking
hinges, gritty limbs & sturdy canvas faded

under calendars with detonation times &
best spots for viewing
& Miss Atomic Bomb! radiating

loveliness instead of deadly atomic particles
award her a ten-pound bag of mushrooms
slather her in mushroom cloud shaving cream

her to-split-a-face-open-mouthed
smile a raze
to disappear into, black hole eerie, the Atomic
Cocktail: one ounce vodka, one ounce brandy
teaspoon of sherry, one ounce brut champagne
true or false, the doom town
mannequins charred & dismembered or
disheveled, merely or pristine, the ones
the blast passed through/by

a little above normal but not in the range of being
harmful, they said, one-twentieth of that
experienced by an X-ray, they said, inconvenient
or primarily of scientific interest
they said, in St. George Utah for example
but who is they

what i always want to know, exactly 
these inexplicable theys with glasses, horn-rim/
black-rim/browline/cat-eye/bug-eye/G-man/retro/a pink

dusting of radioactive snow played in by a child
for example (a proving grounds

a place to find out if something works

Author’s note: This poem, which takes its name from the place that served as a well-positioned vantage point from which to view bomb detonations during the atomic era, was collaged together from a number of sources:
* “50 times bright than the sun”: quotes in this stanza taken from Christopher Klien, “Live from Nevada … It’s an A-Bomb Test!” History.com, Apr. 21, 2017.
* “I never saw a prettier sight; it was like a letter from home or the firm handshake of someone you admire and trust”: words of a columnist, after observing the last of the Ranger shots: Howard Ball, “Downwind from the Bomb,” New York Times, Feb. 9, 1986.
* “i had blood running”: words of a soldier in the trenches at the Nevada Test Site, from Laurence Topham, Alok Jha, and Will Franklin, “Building the Bomb,” The Guardian, Sept. 22, 2015.
* “on the diving platform of the Last Frontier” describes part of an often-reproduced photograph; see, for example, The Daily Mail, Sept. 10, 2016.
* “radiates loveliness” and “ten-pound bag of mushrooms” (the prize Miss Atomic Bomb was awarded by the Pennsylvania Mushroom Growers Association): Matt Blitz, “Miss Atomic Bomb and the Nuclear Glitz of 1950s Las Vegas,” Popular Mechanics, Apr. 26, 2016.
* “a little above normal”: Catherine Caufield, Multiple Exposures: Chronicles of the Radiation Age (University of Chicago Press, 1990), 106–11.

 

mirage quiz

 

a mirage is
a. an optical phenomenon that can be captured on camera
b. a volcano with fire balls said to erupt in time to music although to me it seemed they just went off whenever
c. in some ways whatever you decide it is

a highway mirage is
a. caused by hot air near the surface of the road and cooler air above it 
b. overall worth watching if you happen to be nearby
c. an inferior mirage

why a volcano?
a. because the casino has a Pacific Islands theme and there are volcanos on Pacific Islands
b. no reason is needed whatsoever
c. because of sexual undertones

superior mirages
a. occur when the air below the line of sight is colder than the air above it
b. are common in polar






























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Could The Baby-Sitters Club Have Been More Gay? thumbnail

Could The Baby-Sitters Club Have Been More Gay?

In her monthly column YA of Yore, Frankie Thomas takes a second look at the books that defined a generation.

This is an allegory, but it’s also true: I grew up in Chelsea, the Manhattan neighborhood that was, at the time, the center of gay life in New York. We moved there in 1989, when I was two. I was one of the only children in my neighborhood. There was a park right across the street from my building, but only grown men hung out in it, and I wasn’t allowed to play there. I was enchanted by the rainbow flags that hung from windows in the summertime, but I couldn’t get any adult to tell me what they were for. “Brotherhood,” my preschool teacher told me, and then refused to answer any follow-up questions. In elementary school we had an art teacher who was openly living with AIDS, and every Christmas he had us decorate paper gift bags to donate to a meal service for AIDS patients. When he died, in 1996, I was nine years old and had still never heard the term gay. I was in middle school when I first began to encounter it, but only from classmates, and only as an insult. I was thirteen when I was finally deemed old enough to be told who in our family was openly gay. (My late grandfather, for one. Long story.) I told my ten-year-old brother and got in trouble for upsetting him; he was too young, I was chided, to handle such things.

Such was the cultural cognitive dissonance around homosexuality in the nineties. To say it was a transitional period does not begin to capture the weirdness of growing up internalizing the idea that gay people were deserving of rights, worthy of social acceptance, and outrageously inappropriate to discuss in front of children. This paradox is crystallized in the 1993 Seinfeld episode that gave us the catchphrase “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” That episode won a GLAAD award. So did the first season of Friends, in which every utterance of lesbian was met with uproarious canned laughter, as if the word itself were raunchy and daring—and it was, in 1995.

Gay people were, of course, nonexistent in children’s entertainment. In the nineties, the Scholastic industrial complex would sooner have published a bomb-building manual than include an openly gay character. But the paradigm shifted so rapidly in the mid-2000s that even I am occasionally tempted to judge the books of my childhood by the standards of subsequent decades—hence my long-held, largely irrational grudge against Ann M. Martin.

Ann M. Martin was the creator of the Baby-Sitters Club series, a blockbuster hit for Scholastic that ran from 1986 to 2000 and sold 176 million copies. There were hundreds of books in the series, all of which took place in a heterosexual hellscape of babies and boyfriends as far as the eye could see. This was the golden age of ghostwriting, and Martin was not the true author of the vast majority of the books, but her name and face and cutesy bio (“She likes ice cream, the beach, and I Love Lucy, and she hates to cook”) appeared on each one; she was as familiar as an aunt. When the news came out in 2016 that she was a lesbian, I was surprised by the uncomplicated rejoicing among my queer-woman cohort, and then surprised by the force of my own resentment. My knee-jerk reaction, I’m not proud to say, was: So what? What did she ever do for us?

Poor Ann M.! It wasn’t her fault, and it surely gave her no pleasure, that The Baby-Sitters Club was such an anodyne fantasy of straight childhood. How, in the nineties, could it possibly have been otherwise?

Except it almost was. It came close, once.

*

In 1997, a new Baby-Sitters Club spin-off called California Diaries began to appear on supermarket shelves. The crossover character was Dawn Schafer, and the occasion for the spin-off was her relocation from Connecticut to California. The cover art of this new series signaled forcefully that it would not contain babysitting. Rejecting the original BSC’s kiddy aesthetic of letter blocks and pastels, the California Diaries had matte covers with soft-focus photographs of gorgeous, unsmiling teens. They were plunging into pool water, or sprawling on disheveled bedsheets, or just gazing sadly into the distance. Sometimes, at first glance, they even appeared to be naked. In a word, they were sexy—a quality heretofore utterly alien to the BSC universe. The California Diaries clearly communicated, without having to say it explicitly, that they were for mature readers, those who had grown far too cool for the Baby-Sitters Club. I was ten years old, and I was instantly hooked.

I can only assume that Scholastic didn’t think it through, because the spin-off’s fundamental flaw was obvious from the start: with the original Baby-Sitters Club series still ongoing, the California Diaries could not violate the Groundhog Day timeline of the BSC universe, in which characters were not permitted to age past eighth grade. They got around this, sort of, with the belabored premise that Dawn and her California friends were transferred from their overcrowded middle school to a high school building, which placed them in tantalizing proximity to high schoolers. With the main characters permanently stunted at age thirteen, though, the potential for sexiness was limited. Alcohol was consumed, but never by the first-person narrator, who could only look on disapprovingly until the drinking was punished. Anorexia was suffered and cured within a single book. There was no problem that could not be solved by confiding in a trusted adult (except when Sunny Winslow’s mom died of cancer, but that wasn’t sexy). No one even kissed with tongue.

And amid all this edgy chastity there was Ducky McCrae, the only boy and only bona fide high schooler (a sophomore) in the core cast. He hung out with Dawn and her fellow eighth graders because his peers bullied him. You might expect this arrangement to generate some romantic tension, but Ducky’s relationship with the girls was purely platonic. He went shopping with them. He listened sympathetically to their virginal dating dilemmas and had none of his own.

It’s difficult to describe Ducky without sounding like I’m speaking in coy euphemisms, flapping my wrist suggestively, as if trying to talk over the heads of children: he was sensitive, if you know what I mean. He enjoyed fashion and Broadway musicals, if you know what I mean. He was just one of the girls, if you know what I mean. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

Have you ever played Taboo? It’s a card-based party game in the tradition of Charades. You draw a card with a secret word on it (say, mustard), and you must convey this word to the group without uttering it or any of the related forbidden words on the card (yellow, condiment, spread, Dijon, hot dog). “It’s a … flavor agent … used on grilled meats … and a weaponized gas in World War I,” you sputter, until someone shouts “Mustard!” or time runs out.

Reading the California Diaries is like an endless game of Taboo in which the secret word is always gay and time always runs out. At the climax of Ducky: Diary One (book 5), Ducky is taunted by a male classmate: “You can’t change, can you? … I give you all these chances to be a NORMAL GUY, and what do you do? Act like a WIMP. Maybe that’s the way you ARE, huh? Maybe there’s a REASON you can’

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OMNIVORE: Take the range thumbnail

OMNIVORE: Take the range

Three gaps help us understand
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Lit Hub Daily: February 19, 2019 thumbnail

Lit Hub Daily: February 19, 2019

TODAY: In 1963, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is published. 

Also on Lit Hub: The return of Lit Hub Recommends • Going deep into the Canadian subarctic for research • Read from Han Kang’s The White Book

 



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Quiz: Which Captain Marvel Are You? thumbnail

Quiz: Which Captain Marvel Are You?

There sure are a lot of Captains Marvel flying around, aren’t there? Carol Danvers is getting her own movie on March 8, Billy Batson’s flick comes out in April…and that’s saying nothing of characters like Mar-Vell, the first hero published by Marvel to go by the name Captain Marvel, and Monica Rambeau, a good friend of Carol’s wh

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“Faust” Was the Original Viral Content, and It’s Still Relevant Today thumbnail

“Faust” Was the Original Viral Content, and It’s Still Relevant Today

How a 400-year-old story keeps reinventing itself to reflect what we most want, and what we most fear

I f the legend of Faust — the old man who sells his soul to the devil himself in exchange for youth, power, and glory — originated with the Germans in the 16th Century, it’s been perfected by the Americans in the 21st Century. Not the actual Americans (though there’s an argument to be made for that), but The Americans. When the FX series debuted in January, 2013, just ten days after Barack Obama was sworn in for his second term, its showrunners couldn’t have predicted how relevant the story of two Soviet spies embedded in the D.C. metro area in the 1980s would be by the time The Americans wrapped on May 30, 2018. In the wake of Donald Trump, travel bans, border walls, and Russia probes, a series finale that ended with KGB operatives Philip and Elizabeth Jennings sacrificing everything for the deal they made with their country felt uncomfortably resonant.

Despite the FBI’s pursuit, the Jenningses make it back to Moscow. But after 20 years in the United States, they’re now in a Soviet Union that is completely foreign, and one that they sense has an uncertain political future. Philip’s best (and only) friend, the Bureau agent leading their pursuit, will have hell to pay for letting the family escape, both personally and professionally. The cost for eluding capture also means that Philip and Elizabeth are forced to to abandon their son and are in turn abandoned by their daughter along the way.

The Faustian exchange is manifold and multilayered in The Americans: Philip and Elizabeth give up their futures of certainty in a country that, while mired in Soviet sameness, also sold its citizens on a sense of security. The decades they spent building their lives in the U.S. meant decades of decisions — from having kids to buying a Camaro — that would all come in second (at best) to whatever needed to be sacrificed for the USSR. And, in the end, it all gets sacrificed, including much of the faith they had in their government when their exposure is wrapped up in a plot by their own handler to discredit Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. They bargain away their sense of belonging in order to serve their country, and in the end, the devil comes to collect.

Making it back to Moscow, the Jenningses still have a ways to fall: The Americans wraps in 1987, two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and four years before the collapse of the USSR turned Russia into a kleptocracy. Even if their American-born children are deported to the USSR and reunited with their parents (as was the case with the children of Russian spies living in the United States in the 2010s), it’s likely that the family would be even more miserable and fractured. Hell is other people.

The U.S., as we came to realize over the six years that The Americans ran, is no better off. To add insult to injury, this revelation is due in part to a presidential election currently under investigation for potential ties to the Russian government. The lines between who is Faust and who is the Devil in that dichotomy are as skewed as a state-run newspaper.

The lines between who is Faust and who is the Devil in that dichotomy are as skewed as a state-run newspaper.

How we view history depends largely on how we frame it. Faust entered into legend in 1587 with the German chapbook, The Historia von D. Johann Fausten, published by Johann Spies and presumably based on the real-life alchemist Johann Georg Faust. Faust conjures Mephistopheles in the woods and makes him an offer: his soul in exchange for 24 years of absolute power and knowledge. With the devil at his side (and, improbably, a poodle), Faust rubs elbows with sultans, popes, and Helen of Troy. Two dozen years later, Mephistopheles demands payment in full. The morning after the final day of the bargain, Faust’s innards are discovered scattered around his bedroom — the rest of his body is found in his courtyard.

The Spies chapbook traveled with the velocity of a Tomahawk missile, resonating with audiences for both its fantastic episodes and gory end. Scholar Gerald Strauss describes the pamphlet as “the very paradigm of a late medieval… user-friendly article, attractively packaged, designed to grab and hold attention, and capable of leaving some sort of enduring mark on the mind of the targeted reader.” In other words, it was the 16th-century equivalent of BuzzFeed clickbait, presented as a dichotomy of virtue versus damnation with clear heroes and villains. It’s the cautionary tale of what happens when we eradicate our deepest fears and satisfy our highest goals.

Faust was the 16th-century equivalent of BuzzFeed clickbait, presented as a dichotomy of virtue versus damnation with clear heroes and villains.

It didn’t take long for English translations to take hold, including Christopher Marlowe’s dramatization, Doctor Faustus, which premiered in 1592. In Puritan New England, its popularity was comparable to the Bible, the occasional hymnal, and a few schoolbooks. Even as the “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” aesthetic of the 17th and early 18th Centuries faded away, Faust (much like history) repeated itself.

Goethe became the grandmaster of the legend between 1806 and 1831, when Parts I and II of his Faust were published. Instead of being a black-and-white story of one man’s willing descent into damnation, however, Goethe painted his version with shades of 19th-century grey. His Faust bemoans in Part I, “Two souls are locked in conflict in my heart/They fight to separate and pull apart.” This chronic dissatisfaction, rather than the specifics of his contract, becomes Faust’s downfall — as well as the downfall of Marguerite, a love interest he seduces once he regains his youth, but is incapable of fully loving. His bargain with Mephistopheles becomes a bet: He’ll serve the Dark Lord if and when he finds pure, unadulterated happiness within the totality of the human experience.

Until then, he’ll take a particularly Romantic reward: “a frenzied round of agonizing joy,/Of loving hate, of stimulating discontent,” and “The whole experience of humankind,/To seek its heights, its depths.” There could hardly be a more 19th-century request.

Goethe’s Faust is one of the first to become relatable rather than revilable. In him, we can see our own desires and dissatisfaction, as opposed to a cautionary tale that reminds us to suppress those same desires. Indeed, after being originated by Spies, cemented by Marlowe, and given new life by Goethe, Faust has continually been reinvented as a metaphor for whatever we desire and fear most. The nature of the bargain, and the actual deliverables, are details to be dictated by the times. In the 16th century, Faust bartered mortality for knowledge; in the 19th, he made a gentleman’s wager to achieve Romantic transcendence.

Across the 20th century, Faust continued to flourish as a tabula rasa for many of humanity’s greatest atrocities, the desire being godlike glory. Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita placed the devil in Stalinist Moscow, where he exposed the USSR’s culture of greed, excess, and sycophancy. Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus chronicled the story of a composer who barters with Mephistopheles in the shadow of Hitler’s Germany, unaware of the ramifications of this deal until there’s no escape (in its 1948 review, the New York Times didn’t miss the opportunity to call out Mann’s home country for having “sold its soul to the Nazi demon for transitory worldly glory”).

Across the 20th century, Faust continued to flourish as a tabula rasa for many of humanity’s greatest atrocities.

Historical figures themselves started to become implicated in the meme, even to the point of backlash. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, was so associated with the trope that, writing for Dissent magazine in 1956, Günther Anders declared Faust dead. “Since we are in a position to inflict absolute destruction on each other,” he argued, “we have apocalyptic powers. It is we who are the infinite.” Faust’s fatal flaw, Anders argued, was the “inability to transcend his finitude” — something we as a society with the power of nuclear destruction can even begin to understand.

But have we really transcended?

On a Saturday night in Berlin just before Halloween, I exit the U-Bahn at the Deutsche Oper station, just before a performance of Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust. This means passing a large slab of a monument by Alfred Hrdlicka, titled Der Tod des Demonstranten (“The Death of the Demonstrator”). Hrdlicka depicts a man suspended upside down by two police officers in full riot gear. The demonstrator, his back turned towards the viewer, is held by the legs, his wrists pinned together, his back bared. He looks vaguely Christlike, or like an Icarus who has flown too close to the sun and is now being dragged back down towards his doom. It’s an apt visual to encounter before seeing Berlioz’s date with the devil.

But Benno Ohnesorg, the subject of the memorial who was killed outside of the Deutsche Oper in 1967, isn’t another Faustian avatar, rather he represents the price of power. At just 26, the classics student was attending his first demonstration, opposing the Shah of Iran’s visit to Berlin and the German government’s welcoming of an authoritarian leader with a heinous human rights record. Iranian agents and German police began to attack the peaceful demonstrators, and in the chaos that ensued, Sergeant Karl-Heinz Kurras shot Ohnesorg in the back of the head. He died en route to the hospital, leaving behind a wife who was pregnant with their first child.

Sergeant K

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VIDEO: Feminista Jones | Reclaiming Our Space

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10 Books That May Be a Catharsis for Burnout thumbnail

10 Books That May Be a Catharsis for Burnout

The Set-Up

When you graduated with a college degree and $40,000 in student loan debt, the assumption was there would be a good paying job at the end of the tunnel. So you applied and interviewed, applied and interviewed—rinse, repeat, etc.—and after circulating through this cycle a dozen times, you got a job. It was entry-level and didn’t pay well, but everyone told you you’ve got to start somewhere (also, BE GRATEFUL!), so you took the job and moved into a studio apartment that was smaller than your childhood bedroom. It had a healthy cockroach infestation and you thought, well it’s better than living at home or with a bunch of roommates, and it will only be for a little while—until you got a raise or a better paying job.

Fast forward two years and those cockroaches have names and you’re still making the same amount of money. Sure, you have more responsibilities than you did when you started, and sure you’re expected to answer emails at home, and yeah you spend your weekend teaching Pilates—but at least you’re paying your bills on time, and at least you have health insurance. Maybe you should look for a new job, but when you look at hiring sites, jobs that aren’t entry-level require five to six years of experience. Going back to school is an option, but the $500 you’re paying a month in student loan debt is bad enough; do you really want to add to it? You haven’t done laundry in a month, your license needs renewed but when is there time to wait in line at the BMV? You have shoes you bought online that don’t fit, but the hassle of returning them seems insurmountable. You’re tired and you’ve become stuck. Anymore, a perfect day is when you get to wear sweatpants.

You: a millennial.

An Explanation

A few weeks ago Anne Helen Petersen’s (Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman) very popular Buzzfeed article “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation” elucidated the plight of an entire generation of tired adults. Why do Millennials feel paralyzed by simple errands like registering to vote, going to the post office, paying bills, waiting in lines? Well, here’s a few highlights from Petersen’s article—through social media “branding” we’ve become “products”; working too hard has “facilitated our exploitation” in the workforce; we’re trained to erase our problems with medication, rather than slowing down and reevaluating; self-care is a new “commoditized” “exhaustion” that’s advertised as a solution; and we’ve been groomed since childhood to achieve perfection. It’s discouraging, rage-inducing, and basically hits the nail on the head.

Burnout isn’t unique to Millennials, but we’ve definitely cornered the market and I think the publishing industry has caught on.

So, if you’re feeling strained, feeling alone, feeling overwhelmed, or apathetic—don’t worry, you’re not alone! Because look: there are plenty of books about burnout too!

These are not all by Millennials or even exclusively about Millennials, but they are about people suffering from depression (many verge into mental health issues), disillusionment, or just plain ‘ole burnout.

Finding Catharsis

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges

This is an absolute favorite book that I read oodles and oodles of times years ago. It’s miles better than the movie, which I’ve never been able to watch all the way through. Gilbert is twenty- four, has a job at a grocery story and lives at home with his family. His mother, who is suffering from depression after their father died by suicide, is eating nonstop, and Gilbert and his older sister have to take responsibility for her and their younger brother. It’s a burnout book with heart.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh book coverMy Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

An apathetic 20-something decides to sleep a year with the hope that when she wakes up her problems will disappear. This modern day Sleeping Beauty achieves her induced coma with sleeping pills she gets from a loony psychiatrist. When she’s not asleep she watches Whoopi Goldberg movies. “Oh, sleep. Nothing else could ever bring me such pleasure, such freedom, the power to feel and move and think and imagine, safe from the miseries of my waking consciousness.”

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh

Short personal anecdote: I adopted a dog from the animal shelter, and when I read her description online it said that she had “no manners,” but when I went to the shelter to meet her she was really sweet, and she had freckles on her nose, so I brought her home, and I’m sure you already guessed—she became demon dog! I’d find her in the middle of the dining room table scrounging for food, she pulled the Thanksgiving turkey off the counter, barked constantly, ate a chair, ran away more than once, she’d go nuts when she saw other dogs on leashes, and jumped on everyone that came through the door. It was exhausting and emotionally draining, and I didn’t know what I was going to do. When I read Hyperbole and a Half, Brosh made me feel so much better, because she also had dogs with no manners! She was also dealing with depression, and I related to her story so much.

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. by Samantha IrbyWe Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby

Samantha Irby is not afraid to talk about sex, bowel movements, or depression. She’s a hilariously fearless essayist that’ll make you crack up over lewd bathroom situations, and cry as she puts her demonic cat—Helen Keller—to sleep. For me, David Sedaris has always been the standard-bearer of the essay, but I think Irby is hot on his heels.

After Dark by Haruki Murakami

Nothing says burnout to me like insomnia. Murakami’s haunting prose and meandering plot takes us through one night in the lives of a few sleepless people in Tokyo.

cover-of-fleabag-phoebe-waller-bridgeFleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge

A brilliant play. A brilliant TV show. “I have a horrible feeling I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, mannish-looking, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.” Fleabag has just lost her best friend to accidental suicide and her business is struggling, but she’s still trying to power through, even though life is hard.

Severance by Ling Ma

This is a wry take on the end-of-the-world pseudo-zombie-apocalypse novel. A fungus, spread through things we buy that are “made in China,” is turning people into mindless automatons of their former selves. They continue doing dishes in a mindless loop, or sit at their office desk, or continue driving a taxi until they die from starvation. People are stuck in the same routine until they die.

Erasure by Percival Everett

A sardonic story about Thelonious (Monk) Ellison, an African American author who wants to be identified as an author, not classified separately by his race. He’s tired of books like “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto” getting acclaim for featuring “authentic” African American experiences, while his more academic books don’t get published. So while dealing with tragedy and new responsibilities in his personal life, Monk decides to write a parody of “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto,” which of course becomes hugely popular.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Keiko takes a job at a Japanese convenience store because she loves the unchangeable routine of stocking shelves and working at a cash register. But her parents worry about her choices, so she decides to pretend to date a man she meets at the convenience store. The man is immature and irresponsible, and Keiko finds herself in a pickle of a situation. A story about what happens when we let society’s expectations overrule our own happiness.

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