The Fallback Plan: A Novel by Leigh Stein (New York: Melville House, 2012. 219 pp)

Leigh Stein is a first-time author. She lives in New York where she works in children’s book publishing and teaches musical theatre. Her upcoming release, Dispatch from the Future is a collection of poems to be released in June 2012.

Prolonged Adolescence

As a musically-minded individual teaching choir, I’ve always wondered: what is my fallback plan? What would I do if I couldn’t get a job? I’ve luckily never been thrust into that scenario, but many holding an arts degree are. The sad truth is that the arts degree doesn’t do much in the marketplace. Sure, it helps hone one’s craft; it helps someone to become a better musician, painter, or actor. However, no art gallery, bar scene, or theatre will say “you have a degree, you’re hired!”

A lucky few find a job with the aid of their degree, while others succumb to corporate life or barista-hood. Some, however, choose not to deal with the problem and move in with their parents in order to usher in an era of prolonged adolescence. Leigh Stein paints such a person, Esther (a pseudonym for herself), in her novella The Fallback Plan.

Esther Kohler is a recent college graduate, and like so many others, completely unemployed with no prospect on the horizon. She ends up living with her parents, much to her disdain. She slides through life in the doldrums whilst drinking with her friends, Jack and Pickle. In contrast to the rest of the world, absolutely nothing happens in her life.

“In June, the monsoons hit Bangladesh. Chinese police discovered slaves in a brickwork factory who couldn’t be sent home because they were too traumatized to remember anything but their own names, and Dr. Kevorkian was released from prison. In other news, I moved in with my parents” (3).

Like so many graduates of the arts, she is forced to rely on a fallback plan, or at the very least, figure out what it would be.

The Joys of Getting a Job 

As a graduate with the not-so-sought-after emphasis in theatre, Esther has no hope in the world for a job. So, she decides to get a job in babysitting. Well, she doesn’t so much decide to do so—it’s thrust on her by her parents.

“I couldn’t believe I now had a job. My job was going to be playing with a four-year-old? Part of my brain immediately attempted to calculate the amount of money I’d get to spend on screenwriting books after I paid my parent’s rent, part of my brain said, You’re stoned, about to go on a drug run, and someone is going to trust you with their small child, and part of my brain cast me as Marry Poppins in an adaptation directed by Stanley Kubrick” (23).

But, in the process of babysitting, she befriends the mom (her employer) and the daughter. The mom lost her first child, and by looking into her life, finds that depression can be deeply seated. Esther herself has been struggling with depression, both during and after college, and is having trouble coming to terms with her feelings.

“I knew I was depressed, but my hope was that maybe there was a brain tumor at the root of all this, something that would show up on a map of my cerebrum, something excisable. And then I came across the word weltschmerz” (69).

Weltchmerz is defined as a mental depression or apathy caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state. It’s a mood of sentimental sadness. Esther, no doubt a mirror image of Leigh Stein, has to work through this sentimental sadness and figure out how to make life work. Forced to come to grips with her situation, this coming-of-age story is inextricably intimate and funny at the same time.

The Fallback Plan paints a depressing and accurate picture regarding the status of the liberal arts degree in the United States. But by no means am I advocating for the lack of arts in schools, nor am I painting them as worthless. I teach the arts, have two degrees in music, and find them completely worthwhile. In fact, arts and music make your brain work harder on analytical pursuits. Some businesses are even hiring music majors in lieu of those with business degrees because of their creative brains. The point I’m trying to make is that if you’re pursing arts, don’t expect your degree to work for you. Rather, work for your degree.

Anyone who likes author David Sedaris, or even something like Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan would enjoy this work of fiction. It’s honest, witty, and works through some pretty deep issues. I think that the book could have been longer and explored some of the stories a little more deeply, but all in all The Fallback Plan is a good read.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

Posted by: Andrew Jacobson
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