We contacted Jesse Browner, the author of Everything Happens Today and The Uncertain Hour, about curating a list of his favorite books where the action transpires in less than 24 hours. Both of his previous novels take place in less than twelve hours, so he definitely knows the challenges of using a limited time frame to bracket a story. “The writer must pay meticulous attention to structure and to the way time appears to flow through an active consciousness, which must be carefully controlled if it is not to become obsessive,” Browner explains. “In researching Ulysses, for instance, Joyce went back to the weather reports for Bloomsday so that a cloud that floats over several scenes behaves in strict obedience to the real-time wind conditions prevailing over Dublin on that date.”
“While few who write or read one-day novels will require such verisimilitude, they all understand the preciousness of every passing minute,” he continues. “More importantly, though, they all recognize that it is very easy, and very common, for each and every one of us to live out an entire lifetime of emotion, reflection and experience in a single day – or less.” Click through to check out Browner’s picks, and feel free to add to his list in the comments.
The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker
Oh man — this novel will definitely divide people into those who enjoy reading multiple pages about why single, small items are placed in opaque bags in this day and age, or how plastic straws are inferior to paper ones, and those who simply don’t. Baker takes the time to wax philosophical in this novel about a man who rides an escalator back to his job after lunch. That’s it. It’s about the thoughts he has about his life as he returns to his mundane job, but if you go with it, you are guaranteed to be sucked into the narrative.
Saturday by Ian McEwan
This is a novel set in London on Saturday, February 15, 2003. Henry Perowne is a doctor who wanders around the city doing chores and thinking about the meaning of the anti-war protests that are happening on this particular day. When he wakes up, he stands out the window and looks out at the view below. McEwan writes, “Henry thinks the city is a success, a brilliant invention, a biological masterpiece — millions teeming around the accumulated and layered achievements of the centuries, as though around a coral reef, sleeping, working, entertaining themselves, harmonious for the most part, nearly everyone wanting it to work.”
The Uncertain Hour by Jesse Browner
Are you ready to go back to 66 AD? Here, you will find Titus Petronius, deciding whether to die by his executioner in the morning, or commit suicide in the grandest manner possible. He chooses the latter, and throws a decadent party to send him off. Michael Cunningham called this “a truly original work of art,” and we agree.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
As she makes preparations for a party that evening, Clarissa Dalloway enters a London teeming with people on their own particular missions. Woolf writes, “In the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.”
Ulysses by James Joyce
On June 16th, Leopold Bloom meanders through Dublin and meets a slew of people along the way. This famously difficult experimental novel is filled with allusions and neologisms, but don’t be afraid to delve in, because it’s worth it to experience lines such as: “The ferreteyed porkbutcher folded the sausages he had snipped off with blotchy fingers, sausagepink.” June 16th now marks the date of Bloomsday, an annual worldwide event; if you’d like more information, you can find it here.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
In an incredibly harsh Soviet labor camp in the 1950s, we find an innocent man forced to work even while ill. It’s another day in the gulag for Ivan Denisovich, but it’s horrifying to witness as a reader. We see cruel prison guards, prisoners working in temperatures that are below freezing, and merely surviving another day being the ultimate goal. Solzhenitsyn was called an enemy of the state upon its publication and ejected from the Soviet Writers’ Union, but won a Nobel Prize after that, so it wasn’t all bad for the beleaguered author.
Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
It’s the Day of the Dead and Lowry’s protagonist, Geoffrey Firmin, is in a small Mexican town, soaking his pain in alcohol: “A sense of fear had possessed him again, a sense of being, after all these years, and on his last day here, still a stranger. Four years, almost five, and he still felt like a wanderer on another planet.”
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Jesse cheated a little here, since this is a novella, but be kind and go with it. We all know the tale: it’s Christmas Eve in the mid-1800s and a miserly man named Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, who explains to him that he will be visited by three ghosts during the night. Ghosts! Christmas! Merriment! Developing Empathy! All good things here, we say.
Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
By changing his name from Wilky Adler to Tommy Wilhelm, our protagonist dreams of a Gatsby-esque change in his fortunes. Escaping his past is harder to do, however, when his father still calls him “Wilky.” One day, Tommy looks back into his past to ruminate on his failures, mistakes, and misgivings in order to determine whether freedom is actually a state of mind, a possibility. All he’s asking for is mercy; that, and a lucky break. But who will give it to him?
Embers by Sandor Marai
Jesse writes, “It was Sandor Marai’s exquisite, claustrophobic 1942 gem Embers that served as inspiration for [my novels]. It is one of my favorite books of all time.” This book was originally published in Budapest, but took decades to reach our shores. In it, two gentlemen meet to discuss their 41-year separation and argue about their relationship with the lady of the castle, who is now deceased. As Patsy Cline sings, “Tra la la la, Triangle.”