Who are the authors who celebrate the banal?
April 16, 2020 9:46 AM   Subscribe

After having spoken to people who've lived in war and other conflict zones, I always appreciated how lucky most of the Western world is enjoy simple freedoms such as going to a mall or enjoying a coffee in a cafe with relative peace of mind.

When this pandemic crisis is over, I think / hope people are really going to appreciate some of the most banal things again.

But who are the authors who have celebrated the banal in their works?
posted by jacobean to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't read the rest of her works but Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett comes to mind.
posted by greta simone at 9:49 AM on April 16, 2020

Just to clarify, but don't most modern romances do this? A special cup of coffee, someone dropping by a small bag of lemons. There's a minor subplot in Kristan Higgins' All I Ever Wanted about a special rocking chair. In any case, I look forward to hearing other answers.
posted by slidell at 10:08 AM on April 16, 2020 [2 favorites]

This is Nicholson Baker's specialty. His novel Mezzanine takes this almost to the point of self-parody. The Anthologist is another good example.

Isn't James Joyce's Ulysses the classic example of this?
posted by JonJacky at 10:10 AM on April 16, 2020 [12 favorites]

Anne Tyler, for sure! Her works are all about the joys of things that are very, very comfortable and ordinary. I haven't read all her recent stuff, but "Breathing Lessons," "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant," and especially "The Accidental Tourist" are melancholy, but really just stories about the ordinary.
posted by xingcat at 10:22 AM on April 16, 2020 [5 favorites]

Henry Roth and Robertson Davies work for me. (And John Cheever, for a somewhat rarefied definition of banal.)
posted by eotvos at 10:23 AM on April 16, 2020 [2 favorites]

Bill Bryson in At Home
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 10:34 AM on April 16, 2020 [7 favorites]

I'd like some clarification on the ask, because there are works I'm thinking of, but I'm not entirely sure how broadly you're defining banal. For example, the falling action of Anna Karenina (post-train) involves a memorable and beautiful (if I may say so myself) scene where Levin realizes that the secret to a happy life is working in his fields alongside the peasants, which is kind of banal and transcendent at the same time. But it comes after hundreds (maybe a thousand, depending on which edition) of pages of other, considerably less banal action. So probably not what you're looking for. Having said that...

I recommend John McPhee all the time, but there's a reason. Oranges is a book about... oranges. Very simple subject, but some of the most dazzling prose I've ever read. Uncommon Carriers is another one that's about a pretty boring topic (collections of short pieces about transportation - long haul truckers, barge drivers, etc.) but turns out to be pretty fascinating.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:38 AM on April 16, 2020 [3 favorites]

Murakami spends a lot of time writing about characters making meals, listening music, walking aimlessly, etc. Lots of small mundane stuff that's treated with importance.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:44 AM on April 16, 2020 [2 favorites]

"The Guest Cat" by Takashi Hiraide is a lovely, perfect little book about a couple's quiet domestic life and their relationship with a neighbor cat who comes and goes as a visitor to their home.

Will be watching this thread because I'm interested in reading these sorts of books, too.
posted by cnidaria at 10:53 AM on April 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

knausgard's "my struggle" is a six-volume, 3500 page monument to banality in both prose and subject matter.
posted by rotten at 11:06 AM on April 16, 2020 [2 favorites]

If you're willing to consider non-fiction, Bloomsbury has a lovely series called "Object Lessons" that are 150 page meditations on everyday objects like high heel shoes, potatoes and the Walkman.
posted by zeusianfog at 11:15 AM on April 16, 2020 [2 favorites]

Banana Yoshimoto, particularly her book Kitchen; Marilynne Robinson's book Housekeeping; Tamar Adler's book An Everlasting Meal. Mark Kurlansky writes excellent journalistic books on seemingly banal topics such as salmon, cod, milk, salt, and paper.
posted by wicked_sassy at 11:19 AM on April 16, 2020 [2 favorites]

What you want are modernists, or neo-modernists.

Most Virginia Woolf novels focus on the minute details of everday existence. There's very little in terms of dramatic events, rising or falling action - it's all about savoring moments of being, trying to get a glimpse at the patterns behind the cotton wool of daily life. Mrs. Dalloway is about Mrs Dalloway planning and then hosting a dinner party.

If you're looking for something more contemporary, you might like Ian McEwan's Saturday - like Mrs. Dalloway it's a single-day novel, focusing on the details of what starts like a fairly ordinary day in the life of a fairly ordinary person. There's a fair bit of dramatic incident eventually, but it only serves to make the protagonist more appreciative of all the joys and comforts of his (upper)-middle-class existence. One of my very conservative English lit prof's favourite novels, because it's such an ode to a certain notion of civilization. But it's also shot through with anxiety, because this is very much a novel about being keenly aware about how much you have to lose.

If you want something a bit less confined to an (upper) middle class perspective, I recommend Zadie Smith NW, which is a more contemporary, more muti-cultural homage to Virginia Woolf.

Not a modernist/neo-modernists, but also usually meeting these criteria: Penelope Fitzgerald. Novels like Offshore and the Beginning of Spring have a lot of time for enjoying the little things, although of course there's also always an awareness of the precarity of that way of life. (The Beginning of Spring is set in Moscow in 1913....).
posted by sohalt at 12:42 PM on April 16, 2020 [3 favorites]

nthing Nicholson Baker and The Anthropologist.

Raising you a Marilynne Robinson - like Gilead or Housekeeping
posted by rw at 12:46 PM on April 16, 2020 [2 favorites]

I hope you'll permit this: I've always like the scene in Godfather Part II where young Vito Corleone returns home with a nice pear, places it on the table, and he and Carmela admire it. It's at the end of this clip. Partly it's about admiring the simple pear, but it's also about the pear representing the beginning of his ascendancy, just as many banal things in our small lives represent the end-points of long timelines or the barely noteworthy projections of great machinery and processes.

I don't know if that scene is in the books the movies are based on.
posted by Mo Nickels at 12:48 PM on April 16, 2020

Here's my go-to quote that I copy into every notebook I carry around.

"And then a man of forty of so with a French accent asked 'How do you find the presence of mind to initiate the writing of a poem?'... I said 'Well, I'll tell you how. I ask myself "What was the best moment of your day?"' The wonder of it is, I told them, was that this one question could lift out from my life exactly what I want to write a poem about. Something I hadn't known was important will leap out in front of me and say 'I am -- I am the best moment of the day.'"

- Nicolson Baker, The Anthropologist, p 236
posted by rw at 12:51 PM on April 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine spins a whole novel out of the things a guy thinks during his escalator ride from the first floor to the mezzanine of his office building over lunch hour on an uneventful day.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 12:51 PM on April 16, 2020 [2 favorites]

Stewart O'Nan is my go to for this. A lot of his novels are melancholic as well as joyful, but they focus really closely on the emotions of everyday life and I find them really cathartic. Last Night at the Lobster is a good example of what he does best, and only about 150 pages.
posted by the primroses were over at 4:27 PM on April 16, 2020

In Schrafft's
W. H. Auden

Having finished the Blue-plate Special
And reached the coffee stage,
Stirring her cup she sat,
A somewhat shapeless figure
Of indeterminate age
In an undistinguished hat.

When she lifted her eyes it was plain
That our globular furore,
Our international rout
Of sin and apparatus
And dying men galore
Was not being bothered about.

Which of the seven heavens
Was responsible her smile
Wouldn’t be sure but attested
That, whoever it was, a god
Worth kneeling to for a while
Had tabernacled and rested.
posted by aws17576 at 4:55 PM on April 16, 2020 [2 favorites]

Also quite banal with a twist is Timothy; or, Notes from an Abject Reptile

Your question has helped me understand why I liked it, OP.
posted by rw at 9:43 PM on April 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

I would second Woolf, for Mrs. Dalloway especially, and Joyce for Ulysses, and Murakami -- this is a bit reductive, but to me his novels all feel like they alternate between surreal episodes and charming domestic scenes where the narrator tries to make sense of the bizarre things that are happening around him while making dinner.

And I have a few to add:

Georges Perec, for Life: A User's Manual, which wanders through the everyday lives of the residents of a Paris apartment building; and An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, which is, literally, an attempt at exhaustively describing a place in Paris.

Nathalie Sarraute, for Planetarium, a novel about a family feuding over the inheritance of an apartment, which just perfectly moves between the very closely observed behaviours of each of the characters and the details of their lives; and Tropisms, which is a collection of very short stories, each of which is built around the observation of a single simple scene in someone's everyday life.
posted by spindle at 7:14 AM on April 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you're willing to consider graphic novels, Jon McNaught's books Kingdom and Dockwood are flabbergastingly gorgeous graphic meditations on things like visiting the seaside and the seasons changing in a small town.
posted by oulipian at 7:21 AM on April 18, 2020

Coming back with two additional suggestions:

“A Thousand Acres” by Jane Smiley. There’s a lot of non-banal plot (it’s a retelling of King Lear), but Smiley’s gift is detail. There are a lot of lovingly detailed scenes of everyday life, and the narrator ends the story working as a waitress in a Waffle House.

“Staggerford” by Jon Hassler is something I first heard of here on Metafilter. It’s another one where the plot, while not insignificant, is secondary to the feel, which is comfortable and familiar. The literary equivalent of an old recliner.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:37 PM on April 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. I am not going to mention specific posters, but some of the suggestions from fiction to factual (and even poetry) have been really great. I will enjoy celebrating the banal even further with these works...
posted by jacobean at 4:17 PM on April 21, 2020

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