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The Story of a Single Day

As spring advances and the days get longer, I find myself feeling like I can pack more and more into a single day. But will I ever get to the point that I can pack a whole novel’s worth of interesting activities into a single day? It might seem like an impossibility that one day could could contain enough to push forward the plot of an entire book – but lots of authors have done it.

Probably the most famous example of the novel-in-a-single-day is Virgina Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which follows the title character through her day in preparation for a party she is to host. Certainly party preparations and hosting aren’t the only action in this book – the author creates a rich inner world for her main character and the reader learns much about her and her life and the time in which she lives. For many readers, Mrs. Dalloway is an intricate and thought provoking piece – but for many others it is convoluted and boring. For Mrs. Dalloway fans, there have been several novels that have been directly influenced by Woolf’s including Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk. Whitbread Prize winning author Cusk updates the Mrs. Dalloway story, bringing her examination to a day in the life of several modern British suburbanites and the day they spend in advance of a dinner party together.

Other modern examples of the story-in-a-day phenomena use the device to examine the issues of the day. Ian MacEwan’s Saturday, tells the story of day of a London Neurosurgeon – details both mundane and tension filled and culminating in an unforeseen encounter. Colouring the entire piece is a massive protest against the war in Iraq taking place in London on the day of the tale. Reviewing for the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani said Saturday “reads like an up-to-the-moment, post-9/11 variation on Woolf’s classic”.

It doesn’t have to be all life examination and cultural commentary in a novel-in-a-day: as TV’s Jack Bauer would tell you, it makes for great action writing as well. Eleven Hours by Paullina Simons is a suspense novel that follows the abduction of a young mother-to-be from a Texas shopping mall. Greg Iles’ 24 Hours, a young child is taken by a serial kidnapper who demands ransom within 24 hours if the child is to be returned unharmed. Library Journal called it “a gut-wrenching action fantasy/thriller that will mesmerize to the bitter end.”

Several authors have taken the novel-in-day-day premise to even more specific time frames: Frédéric Beigbeder’s Windows On the World is a minute by minute account of a family breakfasting in the restaurant atop the World Trade Center on September 11 2001, and spanning the time between the plane strike on the North Tower and the Tower’s collapse. Nicholson Baker’s 1986 novel The Mezzanine examines life during the time it takes a character to ride an escalator between floors of an office building and uses humour rather than tragedy, to explore deeper questions about life.

I was surprised by the number of books I was able to uncover in this vein – if you’re interested in continuing, here’s a few more:

Midnight Champagne
by Manette Ansay
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things
by Jon McGregor
Gaff Topsails
by Patrick Kavanagh
Cosmopolis
by Don DeLillo
The British Museum Is Falling Down
by David Lodge
Ulysses
by James Joyce

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