Everyone knows all too well that life only takes one day — if not an hour or minute — for everything to change. Improvements, valuable lessons, major decisions and abject catastrophes can all resonate for years (and decades), even lifetimes, after springing to existence. Many highly effective writers have seized upon this universal phenomenon in order to craft some of the literary scene’s most evocative, memorable narratives. They capture something relatable and unavoidable about the human condition and wring out as many compelling narratives as possible from within the confines of twenty-four hours. And even then, not every story that can be told using this structure has been told. Not even a fraction.
1. Ulysses(1922) by James Joyce: On June 16th of every year, Dubliners (and literature aficionados worldwide) celebrate modernist master James Joyce’s inspired homage to Homer’s Odyssey. Along with dramatic readings, participants can join up with tour guides and meander the same path as memorable protagonist Leopold Bloom. In the span of one relatively average day, he meets the author’s avatar (and Telemachus equivalent) Stephen Daedalus and the two embark on an intellectual, sexual and introspective journey that solidifies the novel’s place amongst the very best works of “Western” literature. More passionate readers (and English majors) out there should move through Ulysses slowly and savor Joyce’s brilliant use of language and allusions to Classical Greek culture and religion.
2. Mrs. Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf: The fearless, essential author used one of her most beloved novels to bravely discuss issues relating to mental illness, feminism, human sexuality, existentialism and more. Centered on the Clarissa Dalloway of the title, the book starts with her pondering the decision to marry her husband rather than another man or the woman she loves. Meanwhile, World War I veteran Septimus Smith grappled against post-traumatic stress disorder and symptoms that many literary critics believe parallels the author’s painful battle with bipolar disorder and depression. The eponymous character serves as an outlet for Woolf’s feminist and bisexual leanings, while Smith’s gradual descent provides a scathing commentary on the ways medical professionals rush and marginalize their mentally ill patients. Many of the themes she explores continue to impact today’s society as well.
3. Under the Volcano (1947) by Malcolm Lowry: Part autobiography, part novel, Under the Volcano takes place on Dia de los Muertos in 1938. Former British consul Geoffery Firmin flounders about the small town of Quauhnahuac after quitting his position following the nationalization of the oil industry. A raging alcoholic, the central figure hopes to begin poking about on a novel, but his addiction hacks away at productivity. Life only grows more complicated when his ex-wife and half-brother both show up in Mexico, each with their own unique set of expectations. In spite of her ex-husband’s battle with the bottle, the former hopes that her visit will spark something romantic. The latter grapples with his failures during the Spanish Civil War and decides to research potential fascist rumblings for the London Globe as restitution.
4. Seize the Day (1956) by Saul Bellow: Like many, many other memorable protagonists created by the incomparable Nobel Prize recipient Saul Bellow, Tommy Wilhelm faces down a particularly grim midlife crisis. Unemployed and isolated from his father, kids and wife — who won’t even grant him the courtesy of a divorce — he spirals into a writhing existential dilemma that only a master such as Bellow could compellingly portray. Set during the 1950s, an era when a clearly defined middle class began coalescing in the United States, Wilhelm’s struggles intend to parallel this shifting societal change. What makes the novel so impressive is how it effortlessly weaves in social commentary, interpersonal reflection and a realistic, appropriately emotional conclusion all within the events of one exceptionally crowded, deeply personal day.
5. Billiards at Half-Past Nine (1959) by Heinrich Boll: Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Boll channeled his disgust at both war and the abomination of Nazism in this sadly oft-overlooked masterpiece. Though it takes place on September 6, 1958, the narrative does feature flashbacks and openly discussed memories as a means of building character, driving home the central themes and explaining events. The author himself included bits of his own past — including his witnessing the Nazi invasion of Cologne, his hometown — and forges characters from diverse paths and perspectives to illustrate the political and cultural milieu surrounding Germany’s darkest period. Fictional St. Anthony Abbey, a possible reference to Cologne Cathedral or Maria Laach Abbey, causes a rift between an anti-Nazi architect who delighted in blowing it up and the individuals responsible for building and rebuilding it. Among other conflicts, of course.
6. A Single Man (1964) by Christopher Isherwood: This incredibly important novel stood at the forefront of the pre-Stonewall LGBTQIA movement — not just the literary facet. A gay, middle-aged professor from England, now teaching in Los Angeles, comes to terms with the unexpected automobile death of his lover. Christopher Isherwood packs a day in the life of central figure George with a plethora of emotion and regret, underscoring the absolutely wrenching pain he suffers following the devastating loss. It’s an unapologetically raw read that brought the reality of life as a marginalized minority to mainstream audiences. Though the entire novel hinges on all-too-human experiences and feelings, the most evocative of all comes at the end of George’s day. Once night hits, the memories of Jim come surging back in and imbue him with crushing loneliness.
7. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) by Philip K. Dick: Even those who (unfortunately for them!) never picked up a Philip K. Dick novel in their life still know some elements of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? thanks to Ridley Scott’s iconic film adaptation Blade Runner. As one can probably expect, the movie took some liberties with the original story, though both remain classics in their own right. Dick’s novel presents a day in the life of bounty hunter Rick Deckard, tasked with deactivating some incredibly advanced androids known as Replicants. As time marches on, the protagonist wrestles with some serious questions regarding the nature of life and sentience. With so many ridiculously human robots about, his assignment begins blurring lines between the organic and the technological — a phenomenon that inspires plenty of ethical opining both within and without the covers.
8. Hogfather(1996) by Terry Pratchett: Fans of fantasy, comedy and intelligent satire flock to the amazing (and justifiably popular) Discworld series for insightful commentary on both society and familiar fictional constructs. Hogfather remains one of the most popular installments in the literary juggernaut, featuring delightful author Terry Pratchett’s own humorously whimsical take on the Santa/Father Christmas mythos. Auditors and assassins prowl about in search of the analogous Hogfather, believing his antics on December 32nd to impede upon their vision of the ideal universe. A raucous take on familiar Christmas narratives and themes, this action-packed day provides plenty of entertainment for savvy readers with a love of wordplay, absurdity and biting, provocative parody.
9. The Hours (1998) by Michael Cunningham: Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, this Pulitzer winner phases between a day in the life of three different women from three different points in time, one of whom being the famous writer herself. Michael Cunningham carefully pays homage to both Woolf’s renowned modernist, stream-of-consciousness style and the celebrated original narrative. One does not have to read Mrs Dalloway in order to appreciate and enjoy everything The Hours has to offer, but it certainly helps. Not only does the author explore many of the same themes (predominantly feminism, sexuality and mental illness) as his muse, but his characters come to reflect both her reality and her creations, with plenty of nuances big and small to sate literary aficionados.
10. Cosmopolis (2003) by Don DeLillo: Not only do the events of Cosmopolis unfold within the span of a day, they also take place almost exclusively in protagonist Eric Packer’s state-of-the-art limousine as it cruises through Manhattan en route towards his ultimate goal — a haircut. Ruthlessly satirizing the lifestyles of the ridiculously privileged, Don DeLillo also takes a cue from Joyce and populates his novel with decidedly contemporary portrayals of family issues, huge mistakes and lusty ladies. The 28-year-old Packer, himself a multi-billionaire, gambles with his money (and his wife’s) while fighting off stalkers and traffic alike. DeLillo is at his scathingly postmodern best here, dissecting and playing with the familiar image of obscene wealth coupled with crippling internal emptiness.
11. After Dark (2004) by Haruki Murakami: The incomparable Haruki Murakami takes readers on a surreal, yet strangely real, journey through Tokyo during its darkest, most dangerous hours. Mari Asai just wants to sit alone at Denny’s with a book and a cup of coffee, but life seems to have other plans for her. Plans that include a beaten and bloodied prostitute, the mysterious and friendly proprietors of a seedy love hotel, the Chinese mafia and a chance meeting with her sister’s old friend Takahashi. Meanwhile, Eri Asai traipses the boundary between fantasy and reality after succumbing to a pill-induced coma. Though unfortunately one of Murakami’s more overlooked novels, the staggering brilliance of After Dark showcases why he’s one of the most amazing writers working today.