Give me some books about failing.
May 27, 2015 1:30 PM   Subscribe

I'm hitting a rough patch in my life and really failing at something for the first time(bout to drop out of graduate school). I'm looking for recommendations of novels or books that feature characters failing(in whatever way you define that). Not necessarily looking for feel-good/happy endings(although those are alright!). I'm more just curious about how others deal with failing + failing. Kind of a listening to sad music after a break-up thing.
posted by aleatorictelevision to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
George Eliot's Middlemarch has really moving, compassionate depictions of a number of characters who start with high ideals, aspirations or ambitions and fail to live up to them. It's been a go-to book for reminding myself that hey, that's life.
posted by Bardolph at 1:42 PM on May 27, 2015 [8 favorites]

This is much-endorsed for other reasons on MeFi, but Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow concerns itself with (as told in parallel) the buildup to and fallout from a highly ambitious and catastrophically failed interplanetary journey. It's accessible both as sci-fi and theology.
posted by psoas at 1:47 PM on May 27, 2015 [8 favorites]

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks was a good keeping-the-North-Star-in-sight-while-the-storm-rages-through read.

On a different tack, you may enjoy Jane Smiley's Moo. Lots of humanity in academia there.

The Sparrow is good, too.
posted by childofTethys at 1:50 PM on May 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

Here's an excerpt from Buck Up, Suck Up . . . and Come Back When You Foul Up: 12 Winning Secrets from the War Room by James Carville and Paul Begala. See if you can guess who they're talking about.
He failed in business (as a shopkeeper). He failed as a farmer. He ran for the state legislature—and lost. His sweetheart died. He had a nervous breakdown. When he finally got to the state legislature, he ran for Speaker—and lost. He ran for Congress—and lost. He was rejected for a job as a land officer. He ran for the United States Senate—and lost. He ran for vice president—and lost. He ran for the Senate again. Lost again. And when he was finally elected president, the nation he was elected to lead broke apart.
What a loser, right? Fail, fail, fail seemed like all he knew how to do.

Lucky for us he didn't stop trying.
posted by alms at 2:00 PM on May 27, 2015 [5 favorites]

Nonfiction recommendation - The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success by Megan McArdle
posted by cessair at 2:01 PM on May 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

It's aimed at a young audience, but I found Jules Feiffer's The Man in the Ceiling to be a funny, touching, and rather realistic look at failure.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:02 PM on May 27, 2015

The Dud Avocado (so funny and poignant -- I wish this one was better known)
A Visit from the Goon Squad
The Accidental Tourist (This one is more about starting over than failure, but I suspect it fits the mood you're seeking and is really excellent)
posted by veery at 2:19 PM on May 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

The protagonist of Annie Proulx's novel The Shipping News fails at marriage and his career and starts again in Newfoundland under less than ideal circumstances.

In Bleak House, my favorite Dickens novel, unrealistic expectations lead to stagnation for some of the characters, which leads to failure.

But a book you may really appreciate, at this point, is Lucky Jim. It's hilarious and may make you feel much better about leaving academia. There is life after graduate school.
posted by tully_monster at 2:26 PM on May 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

A book that I frequently recommend is American Fuji by Sara Backer. It looks like chick lit, and it's certainly amusing in part, but it kind of sneaks up on you. The two main characters have burdens, one a chronic illness and one the death of a son, that can't be lifted. While this isn't specifically about failure, it is about how it might be possible to live with things beyond our control, how to get our minds around things that have no real reason, no explanation. So it's about loss, and then the additional loss that comes when bargaining and anger and denial are over and the loss is still there.

I make it sound really grim, and it's not. I think it is a really great book that holds painful subjects lightly and gently.
posted by janey47 at 2:32 PM on May 27, 2015 [5 favorites]

Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage might be just the thing. It's about Dyer's failure to write a book about D.H. Lawrence, and it's great.

From a review/appreciation:

What Dyer does in this book, and does remarkably, hilariously well, is document inertia, frustration, boredom, indecision, insecurity, loneliness, despair, and a host of other shitty, very human emotions which we are almost always too proud or scared to admit to feeling to other people, or even to ourselves...
posted by generalist at 2:43 PM on May 27, 2015 [7 favorites]

In general I too find Dyer very good on this subject. I recommend his essay collection, 'Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It.' Sublime.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 3:02 PM on May 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

Fiction: High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby. The main character has just been broken up with, his record shop is failing, and he hasn't achieved his potential. Quite a good book.
posted by tooloudinhere at 3:41 PM on May 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

It's not explicitly about failing, but The Way of Transition is pretty good for when you're going through major changes you're not happy about.
posted by stowaway at 3:45 PM on May 27, 2015

I listened to a Freakonomics podcast called The Upside of Quitting about a year or so after dropping out of a graduate program myself, and found it really comforting in a way I wasn't expecting.
posted by augustimagination at 4:46 PM on May 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh man. You need to read The Quitter, by Harvey Pekar. Does what it says on the tin.
posted by scratch at 5:50 PM on May 27, 2015

And adding one more (great question!): Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon.
posted by veery at 6:34 PM on May 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Came to say Lucky Jim; saw that I was beaten to the punch; am doubling down on it. It is the best.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:59 PM on May 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding The Art of Fielding
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 7:12 PM on May 27, 2015

My Losing Season by Pat Conroy. It's a memoir and about basketball but don't let that put you off if you're not interested in sports. All about what you learn from losing and how it changes you.
posted by lemniskate at 8:07 PM on May 27, 2015

Bitter Is The New Black - Jen Lancaster
Catcher In The Rye - J.D. Salinger
posted by SisterHavana at 8:18 PM on May 27, 2015

The Namesake-- so gorgeous. A Nick Hornby book, as above, but "How to be Good."
posted by bookworm4125 at 9:13 PM on May 27, 2015

The bell jar & catcher in the rye
posted by sweetkid at 10:06 PM on May 27, 2015

You wouldn't be interested in hearing a real-life story of someone who worked her butt off to get into grad school and ended up dropping out, would you?
posted by Anne Neville at 6:54 AM on May 28, 2015

Do you like science fiction? Lois McMaster Bujold's The Warrior's Apprentice opens with Miles (our hero) temporarily forgetting, due to the machismo of competition, his physical limitations and so failing (painfully) out of his military training.

If you like that one, later in the series, in Memory, Miles smashes hard into the lies he's spun around more than half his life, with the possibility of losing everything. Highly recommended, although it won't have as much resonance if you haven't read the earlier books.
posted by Lexica at 10:04 PM on May 28, 2015

This isn't a book, no characters...but maybe you'll find it an interesting read anyway...
posted by hannahelastic at 10:15 PM on May 28, 2015

Non-fiction - A Mile Down: The true story of a disastrous career at sea by David Vann. He had a sailboat built, in Turkey, with the hope of starting a charter business.

There was one problem after another, and what I really loved about the book was all the very specific, and honest, detail of everything that happened.
posted by daikon at 6:57 PM on May 31, 2015

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