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After-College Angst; Getting Undepressed

March 23, 2012 | by

This week our friend Sasha Frere-Jones was kind enough to share his good counsel. By day, Sasha is the pop critic for The New Yorker, and by night he is a member of the bands Calvinist and Piñata. By day or night, he gives darn good advice.

Lately I’ve been watching a lot of after-college angst films. Kicking and Screaming by Noah Baumbach and St. Elmo’s Fire by Joel Schumacher more than any others, though there are others. Anyway, I’m currently studying writing in Chicago, and with graduation just around the corner I’ve been wondering about novels that focus on this time period, or perhaps even nonfiction. I realize there are many college novels, and books about people who have in fact received diplomas from various universities, but I’m wondering more about books that focus purely on that new onset of confusion immediately after leaving the comforts of academia.

Try Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? and Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado. Dundy’s book is set in 1950s Paris, ground zero for Madcap Hijinks. A young woman named Sally Jay Gorce larks about, alternating between enthusiastic musing and socially inept hedonism. Some of the comedy is too arch, like a Jack Lemmon movie with too much mugging, but Gorce is as likable as Lemmon. Dundy’s sentences are rhythmically subtle and easily devoured. It is not a bad thing to be reminded that your postcollege years can be infinitely ill-considered without doing too much damage.

How Should A Person Be? is the inverse of The Dud Avocado. The book’s form is fluid and unpredictable: lists are followed by dramatic dialogue, and a fair number of pages are devoted to a competition between friends to see who can create the worst painting. The architecture gives the prose a circular, easy feeling, even though Heti is taking a hard look at what makes life meaningful and how one doesn’t end up loveless and lost. It is book peopled by twentysomethings but works easily as a manual for anyone who happens to have run into a spiritual wall. (Heti’s book is out in Canada now, but will be released here in June. The American version will be different, because Heti herself wanted to modify the text, a fairly unusual thing in fiction.)

Dear lovely Paris Review,

Could you let me know of a few books, written between 1790 and 1930*, that will make me undepressed? I don’t mean a book that’s necessarily funny or optimistic, usually those throw me even deeper into depression—I mean something that’s going to legitimately make me see the world through someone else’s completely fascinating or biased or hyper-judgmental or abstract vision of it so that I can leave my own consciousness for a bit? Or even a book that puts depression into perspective.


*I add a time constraint because I would like to read books that were written before depression was labeled as such, or diagnosed.

I can’t promise that either of these books will cure depression or induce happiness—enormous tasks—but both are fantastic and are narrated by protagonists living in fractured worlds. Emilio Lascano Tegui’s On Elegance While Sleeping was published in 1925, and is as far from self-help psychobabble as fiction gets. The protagonist, Meursault, is entirely unreliable, and that is not a failing. He wanders, apparently syphilitic, through a French village at some point in the nineteenth century. He witnesses acts of depravation and plans, in a leisurely way, to commit murder. The book is brief and compressed, with the blurred edges of a dream, and the perversity of the characters is matched by the economy of Tegui’s prose. The present moment seems pretty timid after spending time in Meursault’s mind.

Fernando Pessoa did not exactly write The Book of Disquiet, which was assembled from various scraps and published long after the author’s death in 1935. The fragments that make up this book are attributed to Bernardo Soares, one of Pessoa’s several alter egos, or “heteronyms,” as he called them. Soares seems almost identical to Pessoa, from what we know, and this work chronicles the life of a flaneur in Lisbon, walking, worrying, assembling, and disassembling his own psyche.

Like a lot of adults in our sad digitized times, I don’t have a home stereo system, just some cheap speakers that I use to play music on my computer. Let’s imagine for a minute that I have the cash to upgrade this situation—where do I even begin? Like, if I’m not a hobbyistic music listener but I’d still like to listen to music in slightly supra dorm-room conditions. My sense is that I should buy a record player and some records, probably? Which ones? Do I have to spend a zillion bucks? Answer quick, before I realize how embarrassing this question is to even ask!

The easy answer is yes, you should have a turntable and a real stereo system. The slightly less convenient part is that this isn’t a fast or cheap task. You don’t need to spend $10,000 but you do need to get bits that match. Look to audiophile forums and go to whatever stores still exist near you to audition gear. Spend the money on the speakers and the turntable—decent amplification is not particularly expensive. The digital world is fantastic, and I have no nostalgia for a golden age when sharing was harder and AM radios crackled in and out of operation. Vinyl just creates a physically thrilling experience and it’s a smaller world if you don’t get to have that feeling regularly. (Insert food or sex metaphor of choice here.)

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  1. jae | March 23, 2012 at 3:22 pm

    The marriage plot by Eugenides, for the first reader

  2. ulises lima | March 23, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    the book of disquiet to get undepressed? this is one of the loneliest texts that exists.

  3. Don Hosek | March 24, 2012 at 10:38 am

    Another for the first reader, The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac by Kris D’Agostino. A bit directionless, but perhaps that’s what was intended

  4. Elizabeth | March 26, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    Any time I feel down in the dumps I turn to Kafka’s biography. There’s comfort to be found in another’s misery (obviously), and it’s a good reminder that I will never have it quite as bad as he did (knock on wood). Thusly, instant cheer up.

  5. Helen DeWitt | March 26, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    I once saw depression defined as suppressed rage. Books that help, for me, are those that analyze the machine that manufactures helplessness. So Erving Goffman’s Asylums, Stigma, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life; Pierre Moron, Le suicide; Michel Crozier, Le phénomène bureaucratique; Polanyi, The Great Transformation; Mauss, The Gift; Bourdieu, Homo Academicus and Distinction. Or, on a completely different tack, books that give one the chance to work at something where there is a genuine possibility of progress. Very keen on bootcamp grammars: Cowan’s Modern Literary Arabic, Lambdin’s Introduction to Biblical Hebrew, Chase & Phillips A New Introduction to Greek. Also Erich Steiner’s The Chemistry Maths Book. (MacLaurin & Taylor series, Fourier series, the Legendre equation — good news for modern man.) On yet another tack, reading anything whatsoever in a language other than English, where the words don’t trigger bad memories. Calvino, Le città invisibili is my favorite.

    Back in the mid-90s Richer Sounds, in London, was campaigning to help people put together affordable sound systems. This was before the comeback of vinyl, so I have no secondhand advice on that subject. But they advised me to get: 2 Wharfedale speakers, a Marantz CD player, and a NAD amplifier — and also to invest in high quality cables. I had to replace the CD player on eBay a year ago, but the system still produces wonderful sound for everything from Brahms to Nirvana. (If my computer ca. 1997 had weathered the years as well I would be $15,000 or so to the good, so I have a soft spot for Julian Richer that I have never had for Steve Jobs.) Richer Sounds has a website with a wealth of information which I would trust if I were updating, given the splendid service provided by their last recommendation.

  6. A Reader | March 27, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    Helen DeWitt!

  7. Grace | March 30, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    Kicking and Screaming! Seen that so many times it feels like I’m friends with the characters. I’m graduating this May and all I really want to do is live inside that movie, gosh. Thanks for the recommended reading. Will add that to the TOP of my list.

  8. Brian Spaeth | March 26, 2013 at 4:29 pm

    If you think your life is bad—remember this: it’s not as bad as the Siege of Leningrad! Not even close—not even in the ballpark!
    Favorite Pessoa quote: “My life_as absurd as a public clock that has stopped.”
    I’m working on an animated video of The Book of Disquiet—but in the meantime, you can read my review (with stills of the video) at:;postID=8173728924325082031

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