We’ve all reflected on the meaning of life and where we’re all going. To help make sense of this often-turbulent world, the existential movement emerged among philosophers in the 19th century and eventually spread to the literary world.
Existential literature, typically characterized by an individual who exists in a chaotic and seemingly meaningless environment, forces the protagonist to confront his/herself and determine his/her purpose in the world. The genre reached its heyday between 1900 and 1960, thanks to authors like Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
With the emergence of the millennial generation, the genre has experienced a resurgence with the rediscovery of classic authors (such as Clarice Lispector), as well as a new-school writers who capture the uncertainty and self-reflection of a new era, including David Foster Wallace and Chuck Palahniuk.
Read on for the essential modern authors who reinvigorated existential literature for a new generation and see if you can decipher what it all really means.
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The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy
On the cusp of his 13th birthday, Binx Bolling is a lost soul. A stockbroker and member of an established New Orleans family, Binx’s one escape is the movie theater that transports him from the falseness of his life. With Mardi Gras in full swing, Binx and his cousin Kate set out to find his true purpose amid the excesses of the carnival that surrounds him.
Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk
Although Palahniuk’s work is more noted for its transgressive and crass style, he is also acclaimed for his existential exploration of society’s stereotypes. In his first novel, an unnamed protagonist suffers from chronic insomnia and a lackluster job. When he meets mysterious and enigmatic Tyler Durden, the pair hold secret boxing matches in the basements of bars that act as a radical form of psychotherapy—and expose the dangers of our modern world.
House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski
The multilayered experimental novel’s main focus is on the Navidson Record, detailing the mysteries of a house, which is bigger on the inside than the outside. Although the bleak existences of the Navidsons, Johnny Truant, and Zampano are ever-growing, the abstract presence of hope drives each story forward. They all strive to find purpose in their life, even if the purpose isn’t necessarily for the greater good.
The Green Pen, by Eloy Moreno
What begins as a series of recollections of a husband and father with a stable existence turns into a vivid and imaginative portrayal of how seemingly insignificant moments can weave into memories and open our eyes to what is essential in life. Revolving around the loss and obsessive search for the owner of a green pen, the man eventually travels down a road of self-discovery and truth.
Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
In the near distant future where our calendar year is defined by a dominant advertisement, the Incandeza family must fight to protect the sanctity of entertainment after the death of the family patriarch. Set between the Ennet halfway house and Enfield Tennis Academy, Wallace questions how entertainment dominates our lives and how it defines us and our relationships. Both painfully funny and sad, Wallace’s opus is worth the 1,079-page effort.
Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, by Etgar Keret
In the title story of this collection, Keret analyzes the human condition of being obligated to other humans in a mere few pages. The following 34 stories analyze the precariousness of everyday life in an abstract world. Despite the absurd and twisting stories that vary in everything from the living and dead, silent children, and talking animals, the central theme of longing pervades Keret’s surreal and uneasy world.
Lila, by Marilynne Robinson
After years of roaming the countryside homeless, Lila begins to reshape her life when she meets and marries the minister, John Ames. Despite her past filled with violence and desperation, Lila continues to hold onto the brief moments of happiness and the people who helped her survive. As she grapples with her new husband’s judgements against her makeshift family, she is also entangled with her new purpose and undefined future.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick
In the year 2021, Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter commissioned to kill rogue androids, so realistic and sophisticated that they are impossible to distinguish from real men and women. As Deckard continues to track the androids, he questions his role in the world and the value of life, including the lives of the robots he must eliminate. Deckard grapples with what makes a human, and if he fits that definition anymore.
In the midst of a psychotic breakdown, a man who struggles to make sense of the world and his pain resorts to kidnapping and interrogating people in his quest for peace. To answer all of the questions weighing on his brain, he goes to everyone from past acquaintances, to police officers, and astronaut, and a U.S. congressman. In an abandoned military base off the California coast, Thomas is determined to get to the truth, no matter what the cost.