8 Great Novels That Take Place Over the Course of a Day
Sonya Huber Recommends Virginia Woolf, Ian McEwan, Bernadette Mayer, and More
A book that takes place in one day offers immersion in a character’s life and consciousness, with the added resonance of a creative constraint that mirrors our own lived experience of 24 hours with changing light, ticking numbers, and the book-ends of sleep. My attempt to try this in nonfiction—Supremely Tiny Acts: A Memoir of a Day—was inspired by the books below, each capturing the pulse of life in a day’s odd mixture of the mundane and the dramatic. I was also inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses and Essay Daily’s “What Happened” project, in which hundreds of essayists each wrote about the same day in their lives as the day unfolded.
In each of the books below, a sense of place is essential to provide grounding for the flights of the narrator’s mind, anchoring the course of memories and tangents that are provoked by various sensory triggers. The main conflict in these works is the passage of time itself as the narrators attempt to grapple with the meaning of events and encounters, circling, as we all do, around the nature of fate.
Nicholson Baker, The Mezzanine
Anyone who knows me knows I’ll never stop recommending this novel about a guy buying milk and shoelaces and working in a cubicle. The deceptive simplicity of The Mezzanine reveals the beauty of human experience in the mundane details. While scene and detail provide external verisimilitude for so much good writing, the map of the narrator’s thoughts in this novel feels so lifelike, yet also, oddly, so soothing, that it makes one glad to be alive, even in a cubicle.
Bernadette Mayer, Midwinter Day
This book-length poem starts off a little oddly with a slow dreamscape as the character wakes up, but then hunkers down into a Boston day in 1978 as experienced by the author-narrator. Mayer weaves reflections on making art and other larger themes into the map of her apartment and the route of her day, along with the tensions of childcare, making a living, and being in a marriage.
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway
Virginia Woolf’s landmark work remains groundbreaking and fresh. Clarissa Dalloway’s preparations for a party weave with veteran Septimus Warren Smith’s struggle with PTSD and suicidal ideation; the interplay between the two characters’ internal monologues and consciousnesses humanizes both of them, emphasizing the fabric of the city and the collective consciousness that arises from their overlapping paths.
Haruki Murukami, After Dark
Murakami explores the day’s flipside, tracing three characters’ adventures from sundown to sunrise in Tokyo as they wrestle with all manner of dilemmas about the past, present, and future. A thread of surrealism entwines with violence and a love story, yet Murakami contains the plot under a focused spotlight. While the characters’ thoughts are not presented as stream of consciousness, the focus on the mundane anchors the novel.
Gabriel García Márquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold
This is a slim novel set in a world that overlaps with One Hundred Years of Solitude. A melding of journalism and fiction, the story is narrated by a friend of the character Santiago Nasar and presented as a kind of journalistic fact-finding mission. Time proceeds in circles, spiraling through the townspeople who all knew about an approaching murder, delving into the minute details that seem to end up determining characters’ fates, and reflecting on the question of whether there is a pattern or meaning to such intersections, near-misses, and collisions; the book becomes a reflection on how bystanders are responsible for an unfolding tragedy.
Nicola Yoon, The Sun is Also a Star
As one of my first encounters with YA literature, Yoon’s book showed me how much I’ve been missing. Two teenagers fall in love as they wrestle with race, identity, immigration, and the legal system in New York, traipsing and taking trains in star-crossed loops. Despite the threats facing the characters, there’s a deep sweetness in this story, told in alternative perspectives that are interspersed with snippets of scientific fact and the stories of minor characters.
Kathleen Rooney, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
This amazing novel, based roughly on the life of a poet and advertising copywriter, is my new Mezzanine (as in I’m going to have to buy multiple copies and force them on unsuspecting friends). Lillian Boxfish is an 80-something woman who, with humor and pangs of sharp awareness, does indeed take a walk through Manhattan on New Years’ Eve as it turns from 1984 to 1985. In a completely unsentimental way, the narration is constantly surprising and feels like it contains some never-written secret for how to live. I underlined half of it.
Ian McEwan, Saturday
This thought-provoking book follows 24 hours in the life of a brain surgeon in London. The narrative tracks the main character’s thoughts over the course of a full day, meditating on the relationship of an individual to global events, navigating familial joys and larger conflicts, and wrestling with what we don’t know in each moment. As with Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, the author’s description of the experience of consciousness and interaction with other people seem acutely life-like.
Supremely Tiny Acts: A Memoir of a Day by Sonya Huber is available now from Mad Creek Books.