The Futilitarians

Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading


By Anne Gisleson

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A memoir of friendship and literature chronicling a search for meaning and comfort in great books, and a beautiful path out of grief.

Anne Gisleson had lost her twin sisters, had been forced to flee her home during Hurricane Katrina, and had witnessed cancer take her beloved father. Before she met her husband, Brad, he had suffered his own trauma, losing his partner and the mother of his son to cancer in her young thirties. “How do we keep moving forward,” Anne asks, “amid all this loss and threat?” The answer: “We do it together.”

Anne and Brad, in the midst of forging their happiness, found that their friends had been suffering their own losses and crises as well: loved ones gone, rocky marriages, tricky child-rearing, jobs lost or gained, financial insecurities or unexpected windfalls. Together these resilient New Orleanians formed what they called the Existential Crisis Reading Group, which they jokingly dubbed “The Futilitarians.” From Epicurus to Tolstoy, from Cheever to Amis to Lispector, each month they read and talked about identity, parenting, love, mortality, and life in post-Katrina New Orleans,

In the year after her father’s death, these living-room gatherings provided a sustenance Anne craved, fortifying her and helping her blaze a trail out of her well-worn grief. More than that, this fellowship allowed her finally to commune with her sisters on the page, and to tell the story of her family that had remained long untold. Written with wisdom, soul, and a playful sense of humor, The Futilitarians is a guide to living curiously and fully, and a testament to the way that even from the toughest soil of sorrow, beauty and wonder can bloom.



From the deck of a pleasure boat in the Yokohama harbor, I watched the world's largest clock recede through an early-June drizzle. The Cosmo Clock 21 is a digital display mounted in the center of an enormous Ferris wheel swirling with carnival lights. Time as amusement-park ride. It disappeared as we motored into the glittering nocturnal realm of the Shiohama Canal, whose intricate skyline of smoke and steel reflected shakily on the black water around us, intensified by low storm clouds. My husband, Brad, and I were on a nighttime industrial jungle cruise with a group that included two expat friends from New Orleans I hadn't seen in years. We passed by refineries, oil terminals, and steel mills along this dredged shipping channel of the Sumida River, cut through with a network of canals and man-made islands. The yellow logo that adorned the tour company's brochure had transformed its Japanese characters into stylized pipes, valves, and smokestacks. Language as refinery.

The crew served up a toxic-green complimentary drink, the name of which translated as "Night of Deepening Memory." Brad joked that this sounded like something we'd serve at the ECRG. Adjusting our hats and jackets in the tumult of the wet salt air, he and I explained to the others that six months earlier, at the start of the year, we'd struck up what we called an Existential Crisis Reading Group with some friends back home in New Orleans. The usual response: a blend of bemusement, appreciation, skepticism. Invoking the ECRG within that ethereal nightscape, amid massive civilization-powering machinery obscured by the eerie romance of steam and sodium lights, seemed appropriate. The ECRG had become part of how we engaged with the world, had begun to inform our lives and experiences in so many ways.

Brad went to the lounge belowdecks to see if he could get a refill of Deepening Memory, and my friends huddled with a crew member by the bridge, trying to get more information, since the tour was given in effusive, staticky Japanese and we didn't really know what was going on. I didn't mind, though, was even comfortable in the disorientation, watching girls in neat cardigans clutch the rail, holding their short skirts down against the harassing wind, and pose unsteadily in front of the brilliant menace of the gargantuan TOWA refinery. The pleasure boat lingered there, listing as couples and grinning young women rushed starboard to have their pictures taken with the backdrop of the miles of trusses and angled pipes made eloquent by light and steam.

Halfway across the planet from my home, halfway through this first year of the ECRG project, I was filled with both wonder and dread by this heightened moment, feeling its searching pull, attentive to my own reactions. This curious tour on the Sumida River seemed a fitting end to a trip to Japan defined by disaster and novelty. I'd been here to participate in an academic post-disaster symposium at a Tokyo university where one of my New Orleans friends taught. At the conference and in the bars, scholars from all over the world theorized, analyzed, and relived various individual and regional disasters, both natural and man-made, focusing on how people negotiate the aftermath, move forward. This urgent sharing of ideas and findings, the collective preoccupation with destruction and survival, the drinking, were all ground we covered during any given ECRG, only this was on a different scale, on a different continent.

As we sailed deeper into the shipping channels, it was easy to succumb to the unreality of it all, to let our minds swerve and detour. My friends joined me at the stern. At a Japanese railroad company's energy hub, enormous gantry cranes stood motionless at the water's edge, surrounded by piles of coal that looked almost scatological. One of my friends said the cranes reminded him of Cerberus guarding the gates of hell, another said a giraffe. To me, they just looked prehistoric and expectant, heads raised against the glossy night. Then we became silent and entranced again, lost in our own interpretations.

Our friend Chris had set the ECRG in motion back in December. Manic and intensely thoughtful, he would often show up at our house unannounced, his existential angst trailing and puffing restlessly around him like the dirt clouds attached to the Peanuts character Pigpen, or at other times swirling Tasmanian Devil–style, with dizzying urgency. But he's hardly cartoonish or two-dimensional, just vivid and physical, with an extra dose of animation that's deeply, internally driven. Mortally tormented and Boston Irish, Chris had spent most of his adult life in New Orleans, as an actor, burlesque MC, nonprofit administrator, and construction worker. Our house usually welcomes his particular injection of agitated anima, especially if I'm making dinner and feeling sorry for myself. Chris is a commiserator in the condition, though the trappings of our respective conditions are very different. I write, teach, have kids and a husband and days tightly bound by responsibility. Chris is like an emissary from a land I left years ago, and sometimes remember fondly, who brings exotic, weary tales of its customs—frequent, ill-advised hookups and all-night benders, and more current rituals like sexting and Facebook feuds. He had recently asked if I'd want to do some reading with him, sit down and talk through some philosophical issues one-on-one. I immediately said no, my life was already a thicket of personal obligation, but I'd be happy to do it as a group, open it up as a social venture.

So, a few weeks before Christmas, at the Hot Wok Buffet in a suburban strip mall, Brad and I made a list of names on a paper napkin. Beneath the branches of a fake tree reaching toward a chandelier galleon with Lucite sails, we discussed people we thought might be interested in an existential crisis reading group. Our two sons, twelve and five at the time, made frequent trips to the all-you-can-eat serving islands steaming and glistening with immediate gratification. Some people on the list were shoo-ins, others debated, a few eventually scratched off. The boys returned to the table with plates full of anarchy: pizza slices, sushi rolls, Jell-O cubes, and, since we live in south Louisiana, a couple of whole shrimp to dismember.

As we made the list, we realized that there did seem to be a need for something like this among our friends. Flux was the norm—divorces, jobs lost, jobs gained, children birthed, children considered, sustained economic insecurity, and unexpected windfalls. People were on edge as 2011 was winding down, and 2012 seemed to carry some portent. Chris had sent us a handmade postcard featuring the etched disc of the Mayan calendar: Let's do this! Hang on in 2012. It's going to be a wild ride. Another friend, Case, showed up at our house one day with his forearm tattooed with the admonishment Yes in 2012.

And the time felt right for me personally. My father was two years into worsening leukemia. His illness called for frequent hospital visits. Parking meters, frigid corridors, small talk with a chronically pissed-off dad, clenching fear in an elevator descending from the oncology ward, people in scrubs just doing their jobs. Weekly breakfasts with my mother, who needed someone to listen to her. Our kids were getting older and the demands of parenting becoming more complex. I found myself in the unanticipated fulcrum of midlife: balancing youth and age in my body, in my head, in my family. But, of course, there was no balance, only low-grade near-daily skirmishing.

Besides, much of my adult life had been gouged with crises. I'd crawl out of one trench only to be kicked down into another. In my late twenties, soon after I'd finished graduate school and thought I was embarking on a more accomplished, or at least certified, life, my youngest sister, Rebecca, committed suicide. A year and a half later, just as I was beginning to feel normal again, her identical twin sister, Rachel, did the same. There were eight of us growing up. Now there were six, four sisters and two brothers, a fourth of our brood gone. Losing a sibling, especially in youth, is a particular blow, a lateral loss of shared history and DNA that lacerates your identity. Your old narrative is shattered. Your new narrative becomes shapeless, full of confusion and pain. Double that.

When the worst of the grief was over and life opened up again, I met a kind, funny, creative, handsome man named Brad. Brad had suffered his own traumas. His partner had died from a brain tumor the year before, at the age of thirty-three, and left him with a three-year-old son to raise on his own. Both of us knew grief well, but were committed to living. We married within the year. Barely unpacked from our Mexican honeymoon, we were forced out of our home when Hurricane Katrina made landfall and destroyed much of the city. Stunned exiles, we forged our new family on the road, with a kind of refugee freedom and clutching love. When we were finally able to return home, our new life was overtaken by not only destruction, but also creation, as we discovered that on that Mexican honeymoon, somewhere in Oaxaca between bottles of excellent mescal, I'd gotten pregnant. In the first few years after the storm, we were in survival mode, raising young sons, engaged in civic triage and the exhausting work of reconstruction.

By 2011, life had settled. The kids were fine, our jobs were good, the city was recovering in its imperfect way. There was ample love and sometimes even happiness. Finally, some space in the aftermath for contemplation, for reckoning. It was in this space that I felt a persistent, daily, unsettling dread. I would become hollow at the checkout counter, watching items being scanned, or dazed in traffic with the kids in the backseat, convinced, vaguely, that everything was wrong, this route, my parenting, humanity. Later, through the ECRG, I would learn a name for it: the Metaphysical Hangover. When Chris approached me about the readings, it seemed like a possible remedy.

With our Hot Wok list finished that day, Brad and I paid our check beneath the glittering galleon, bellies full, anticipating an afternoon of gastric regret. Some shared qualities among the people on the list turned out to be: an oft-glimpsed sad or jittery introspective bent, niceness, a sense of humor. Some had a tendency to haunt the periphery, but a few were moths to the spotlight. All seemed to be searching, just in different places. Many of them were strangers to each other. We were wary of our own project, which we knew could by turns seem pretentious, goofy, or totally necessary. Over the next week, we approached some of the roughly twelve listees in person and sent emails to others.

Having been a little sheepish in our invitations, we were surprised at the enthusiasm of the responses. Some said yes seconds into our rambling pitch, others asked cautious questions. What do you mean by "existential crisis"? You know, an urgent moment of questioning, a desire to search for meaning or purpose. How depressing is this going to be? It doesn't have to be depressing at all. Existentialism is really about optimism and engagement, not despair… I think? How would it work? Each month someone would choose a reading, then hopefully the next month's reading would naturally arise from the discussion, keep the dialogue ratcheting forward month after month. A few names for the gathering were thrown out there—the Futility All-Stars, Existentialists Anonymous, and my favorite, the Futilitarians—but we would remain generically identified and subsequently just refer to ourselves as the Existential Crisis Reading Group. One recruit asked if we'd have a secret handshake. Sure, why not? We decided on an earnest grip, a too-long gaze, and a deep sigh.

We would head home to New Orleans the day after the pleasure cruise, which gave the night a valedictory feel. Toward the end of the tour, the boat captain asked the passengers for a show of hands as to which color of lights they had preferred, the red or the white. White won. He was pleased and talked about the spiritual healing powers of the white light and white smoke. One friend translated this as some of us furrowed our brows, skeptically. Throughout the tour, my friends, who'd also grown up in south Louisiana, kept remarking how much it reminded them of home, of the clusters of light and fire rising out of the swamps along I-10 and lining the Mississippi River like intense little cities. The same distant, intermittent drama of the flare stacks, the same petro-sharp smells that changed properties with the wind. Deepening Memory indeed.

But spiritual healing?

"People can find spiritual healing anywhere," Brad said. "Besides, this is like a night journey. A transformation that can only occur at night, outside the context of your regular life." He was referring to an ECRG reading from a few months back.

As usual, I was burrowing toward the darkness while Brad was digging toward the light. As usual, he was right. The tour did feel transformative—images that we see in our everyday lives we were now re-seeing in a different way, from a different angle, informed by new thoughts and influences, a dreamlike metaphor for the year of the ECRG. This trip to Japan, which I thought would be a break from the grief and stress of the past six months, was instead punctuating it, certifying that this truly was a time of deepening, of interrogating life.

Tomorrow, we'd cross over the international dateline, feeling scrambled and anxious to reach home, to shower gifts on our sons, to scroll through pictures and try to pass on to the boys the amazingness of everything we'd seen. Brad gathered us high school friends together for a picture on the slick deck in front of a structure that looked like a rocket launchpad about to blow. It occurred to me that we hadn't all been together like this for over twenty years, since goofing around for our senior-prom photo at a downtown hotel, masquerading as fancy adults. And here we were in a dazzling and seething shipping channel in eastern Japan. I felt a flickering amazement at how life in its arborescence keeps reconnecting us to our pasts in unexpected branching ways.

With the tour over, we headed back, weather-battered, to the pier, back to the illuminated office buildings and high-rise hotels of Yokohama, back to the Cosmo Clock 21's dizzying, spectacular countdown.


All Is Vanity

Nearly everyone showed up on time, odd for a New Orleans social gathering. Friends parked and turned off headlights, or shackled their bikes to our old iron fence. The wooden porch collected and amplified their footsteps. The seven-thirty convergence was rung in by the off-key bells of the church tower near the corner on Dauphine Street. A few years earlier, the church had changed its name to Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, in honor of a local priest who died tending to yellow-fever victims after the Civil War. Although he was a near saint, in canonical limbo, the legitimacy of his alleged miracles had yet to be ratified by Vatican bureaucracy. The records agreed he was deeply beneficent, holy even, but was he magic?

Wine bottles congregated on our living room's low table, and bodies settled onto the couches and oversized pillows on the floor. Our project seemed to call for some good scotch, an elevated example of human production—the species proving its worth—and Brad and I had bought a bottle of single-malt Aberlour. This first meeting did not have any clear expectations, though, much less a definite agenda, so no one knew quite how to start.

Drinks were poured and names were traded among the dozen of us. With the exception of my younger sister Susan, and Chris, whom I'd met during the dark years around my sisters' deaths, the others were all people Brad and I had befriended since we'd met each other about eight years before. We knew them from different spheres in our lives—work, art, kids. In addition to Chris's eclectic résumé, we had a few writer/teachers, poet/musicians, a couple of visual artists, a construction manager and former journeyman plumber, and one psychology professor with a private practice on the side who'd long referred to himself as an "existential plumber."

Chris preambled with a little background information. He'd chosen the initial readings because he wanted to go way back, to hear from the ancients, get to the root of existential thought—at least the Western root—with a letter from third-century-BCE Greek philosopher Epicurus to King Menoeceus on "how to live well" and with Ecclesiastes from the Old Testament, believed written not long afterward. Brad and I had scanned the texts and emailed them out, so everyone either had printouts they'd made notes on or, in a couple of cases, a phone they'd scroll through to find passages. Then there were the conflicting legacies of both Epicurus and Ecclesiastes, Chris continued. Some scholars have claimed there were possibly a few different authors of Ecclesiastes, which would explain the inconsistencies, contradictions, and wafflings of the book's speaker, the Preacher, commonly thought to be old King Solomon, son of David, looking back on his life and sharing what he'd learned. Epicurus had a reputation for being a cultlike leader, holed up in his garden commune with his followers, and his name has become wrongly attached to lavish hedonism. In fact, he advocated moderation and making do with little in order to better appreciate more prosperous times. His pursuit of pleasure was more connected to the absence of pain, not excessive sensuality.

Chris read aloud from a section of Epicurus called "The Importance of Studying Philosophy," leaning assertively on his Bostonian vowels. Comfortable behind a mike and in front of crowds, he reined in his performance persona, sized it to the room:

"'So, both for young and old, it is imperative to take up the study of philosophy. For the old, so that they may stay youthful even as they are growing older by contemplating the good things of life and the richness of bygone events. And, for the young, so that they may be like those who are advanced in age in being fearless in the face of what is yet to come.'"

The promise of remaining youthful through philosophy was appealing to me, as nearly every day I was helplessly discovering signs of the disappearance of my younger self. If that self's spirit could be captured and nurtured, then maybe it would be easier to let her body go, accept the inevitable. The oldest among us, Kevin, the bearded, laconic existential plumber, already seemed to have attained a dispassionate agelessness through his dedication to the workings of the metaphysical. Our sons were best friends, and if we ever found ourselves together at a five-year-old's birthday party, I never had to worry about getting trapped in grating parent talk of car pools and charter schools; I could rely on Kevin to lead me down some hushed conversational tunnel about Nietzsche or the construct of authority, far away from the fracas.

The two youngest in the room, Nate and Sara, strangers to each other, both writers in their twenties, newish to the city and to adulthood, already seemed way more advanced in age than I recall ever being back then, even comparatively fearless with their life choices and trajectories. Nate, the only person I've ever met from Wyoming, had been a student in my community writing class at a local university and was so smart and passionate I once ceded most of a class on a George Orwell essay to him. He's a writer and editor who'd lived in too many places and had too many lives for someone his age, enjoying a picaresque early twenties, DJing in Buenos Aires, slam-poeting in Salt Lake City. Quiet and receptive, keeping to the background like the steady blues bass player she is, Sara already had a master's degree at twenty-four and a profound expectation of poetry and the importance of it in her life.

Post-Katrina New Orleans had become a trampoline for some millennials to get momentum and "experience" before vaulting off to better opportunities in more reasonable cities. We'd seen earnest waves of them come and go, with their temporarily funded post-disaster projects and nonprofit jobs. Surprisingly, Nate and Sara had stuck around. I didn't know how they'd gotten so advanced so young, but Sara was having a quarter-life crisis and told me she was glad to have been invited to the group. I didn't quite understand the concept of a quarter-life crisis, as I'd chalked up that whole decade to a sort of inchoate crisis of becoming, mostly spent in bars and bad relationships. I was a little envious they were getting the benefits of an ECRG at so young an age. Would it give them some kind of advantage going forward in life? I was hoping it would give me an advantage in just getting through the week.

We began with the abyss. While both the Ecclesiastes and Epicurus were didactic, prescriptive texts about how to live one's life, both were also contingent on acknowledging the void beyond our sensory perception, aka death. Chris said that some speculate that the spirit of Ecclesiastes may have been influenced by Epicurus and other Greek thinkers who sought to grapple with the nature of temporal reality, the here and now, and who discounted an eternal existence of the soul and seemed to struggle with the role of deities in the human condition. Influential to later philosophers, both these texts were considered radical and even dangerous. Epicurus was demonized well after his death. Dante placed his followers in flaming tombs in the sixth circle of hell, reserved for heretics. And "the whole duty of man" section at the end of Ecclesiastes is thought to have been tacked on much later—an attempt to make the near nihilism of the book's message conform to the rest of the Bible's teachings of adherence to God's law.

One of the first things that struck the group was our unwitting familiarity with Ecclesiastes, one of the more quoted and literarily raided books of the Old Testament. Melville draws from it repeatedly in Moby-Dick. It's where Hemingway lifted The Sun Also Rises from; Henry James, The Golden Bowl; the Byrds, the entirety of "Turn! Turn! Turn!" ("To every thing there is a season… a time to be born, a time to die"). Everyone owns "fly in the ointment" and "Eat, drink, and be merry." On Ash Wednesday, the ostensible rationale for Mardi Gras, when the priest thumbs the coarse ash onto our aching heads, he reinforces our mortality with "All go unto one place; all are of dust, and all turn to dust again." My favorite aphorism from Ecclesiastes doesn't seem to have gotten much traction, literary or otherwise: "For to him that is joined to all living there is hope: a living dog is better than a dead lion."

The phrase "All is vanity" jackhammers throughout Ecclesiastes, by turns hectoring and exasperated and resigned, and is the book's ultimate punctuation. Some of us gathered in the living room found this nihilism jarring alongside all of the lesson-teaching, others found it liberating. Either way, "All is vanity" became the running joke of the evening. Acknowledging the void, we could make fun of the void. Only an hour into the evening and already despair was seeming more manageable. Most people appeared both relaxed and eager to engage in the big talk. A few didn't say much, but seemed to be attentively reading along on their printouts, or maybe they were inwardly dismissing the whole enterprise?

I brought up the ending of James Joyce's "Araby," where the word "vanity" first stained my consciousness as a teenager. The young narrator is in love with Mangan's sister, who lives down the street, and Joyce expresses the infatuation as a turn-of-the-twentieth-century adolescent Dubliner might have felt it, conflating Catholic ornamentation with romantic desire: "I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes. Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand." Raised in a Catholic family in a Catholic city, I could relate, having been jammed into the pew every Sunday morning with my seven brothers and sisters, all of us born within eight years of each other—John, Kristin, me, fraternal twins Susan and Soren, Amy, identical twins Rebecca and Rachel. I'd be on my knees before the Lord with the rest of the family, but most of our bowed heads were confused with hormonal surgings and Saturday-night reverberations.

In "Araby," the smitten narrator is on a mission to buy an exotic gift for Mangan's sister at the Araby bazaar. After his uncle promises to give him money to go, but then forgets and comes home late, the narrator arrives at the bazaar just as everything is closing, stall workers counting their money, the lights in the great hall shutting down all around him. The story ends with the epiphany: "Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger." As a teenager, I knew instinctively to be moved by the one-two punch of music and meaning, the poetic import. As an adult whose adolescent vein of melancholy and self-loathing is still alarmingly rich, I read those lines and I think: Oh God, here I am, still empty-handed, still gazing into the darkness!

At least now, that darkness has become familiar, circumscribed by adult responsibility and experience, but retaining those shadowy contours of longing and frustration and questioning. As I rediscovered that night of the first ECRG, it seems any lengthy discussion of the search for meaning leads inevitably to "desire," that opulent hologram, thus creating a flurry of conversational flourishes on the subject, like:

"We live in fear that our desires won't be fulfilled."


"We live in fear of losing desire."


"Pleasure is the end of desire, and pleasure is the end of pleasure."


"You're just a hungry ghost, nothing but your spirit and your desire; you are insatiable."


"And what about manufactured desire, the world of advertising constantly telling us what we desire?"

We were starting to sound French, but no matter how heady our discussion became, references to materialism seemed inescapable, as if our souls were sticky with the problem of things. As twenty-first-century first-worlders, caught up in a vortex of vanities, how could we really expect to free our selves?

Case, a construction manager, writer, and former journeyman plumber, kept bringing up an ex-girlfriend's emotional attachment to a pair of shoes and how she had once become disconsolate when they were ruined in a rainstorm. Kevin said that this was completely valid, as the subjectivity of pain always is. But Case said that he couldn't get past it, even though she was really hot, because this was after Katrina, when the whole city was suffering so much actual loss.

One of the few ECRG members Brad and I met as a couple, right before we got married, Case seemed on an itinerant sweep through New Orleans, via a spread-out life that ranged through a graduate program in Mississippi, a young adulthood in the Southwest, and a childhood in Alaska. But Case stuck around after Katrina and threw himself into the city's rebuilding—intellectually, artistically, and physically—with the same intensity he put into most things. He practiced what he called plumber's yoga and occasionally wrote poems and stories on joists underneath the houses he was working on.

While Case was in the gritty trenches of rebuilding, he, Brad, my sister Susan, and I had started a nonprofit that put on community events—readings, art shows—in the largely empty city. During that same wild, hopeful period, we also met Case's new girlfriend, Nina, who worked on her own projects, elaborate floats and oversized sculptural puppets, in a massive abandoned school building commandeered by a few dozen artists. Tattooed and blue-eyed, tough with long blond ringlets, Nina was sitting next to Case on the couch, focusing a fierce gaze onto her printouts of the readings. Everyone else tried to steer the talk away from the hot ex and the shoes, but it was like a boomerang Case kept throwing into the conversation.


  • "Moving and complete and very much worth reading . . . Post-Katrina New Orleans itself is an essential component of this world; it lives on the page in pungent detail, with all its disastrous losses and fragile hopes . . . An estimable book."—Emily Fox Gordon, New York Times Book Review
  • "Gisleson brings New Orleans itself into sharp focus, lingering lovingly on its places, its people, and its history . . . but she [also] goes universal in her debut . . . The Futilitarians tackles hopelessness, but it never succumbs to it. Gisleson writes with wit, warmth, and a spiritual devotion to books that never comes across as preachy . . . This search for purpose and connection amid chaos and loss permeates even the most heart-wrenching moments of The Futilitarians--and it's what turns the book from a meditation on reading to a celebration of being."—Jason Heller, NPR
  • "Truly great writing . . . Never does Gisleson dip a toe into the clichéd or the saccharine. Employing a Dave Eggers-esque eye for specificity and the absurd, she conjures the strange beauty of her world . . . An affecting memoir."—Keziah Weir, ELLE
  • "A healing memoir . . . Reeling from deaths, crises, and trauma, Gisleson and a group of friends formed the Existential Crisis Reading Group. In The Futilitarians, Gisleson movingly recounts how they found comfort in the words of Tolstoy, Kafka, and other greats."—Real Simple
  • "The meetings themselves are absorbing enough to make you crave an invitation, thanks to Gisleson's slyly gorgeous writing. But she also uses them to profound effect as a kind of scaffolding, linear poles through which to loop her personal story . . . New Orleans has a visceral presence in these pages, a malleable face, at times a defiant gaiety . . . Refreshingly, Gisleson doesn't offer answers so much as ask good questions . . Her story isn't an easy, read-in-a-couple-of-gulps proposition . . . Yet it offers a generous companionship, the solace of being seen."—Dawn Raffel, San Francisco Chronicle

"Gisleson gives us a layered portrait of not just one woman's rich and complicated life, but so much more: a family suffering unspeakable tragedy, a city struggling, a group of friends brought together to make common cause in making sense of life . . . In her hands, the search is beautiful indeed, sparkling with fierce intelligence and sharp wit and unsparing honesty . . . Lovers of New Orleans stories will find much to admire here, with Gisleson's vast knowledge and experience of the city . . . Her observations are spot-on . . . An exquisite memoir."—Susan Larson, New Orleans Advocate
  • "Vivid . . . moving . . . This haunting and personal look at the real New Orleans, a city of light and shadows, is an unflinching meditation on public grief and honest intimacy."—Lauren LeBlanc, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
  • "This is a shattering and very important book-and will, if there is justice (and there must be justice), be considered one of the best books of this year. There is an ocean of hurt here, but Gisleson manages to sail through it and show us everything that's beautiful about this sea of pain. If you love existential literature, or New Orleans, or your family, or are curious about the meaning of life, then you will find The Futilitarians to be an essential book."—Dave Eggers, New York Times bestselling author of The Circle and What is the What
  • "The Futilitarians sets out a search for meaning in grand terms and solves the search in the beauty of loving detail. From suicide to set painting, lunch pies to Death Row, from decayed eternity to the complex rebirth of New Orleans, this book never loses the treasure of abiding doubt. Plus, spoiler, it ends in fireworks and a reading list you do not want to miss."—Louise Erdrich
  • "After Katrina, New Orleanians became experts in resilience. Anne Gisleson has captured that spirit poignantly in The Futilitarians, which explores how we can find meaning in our lives by struggling back from tragedies. Whether as communities or as individuals, she shows, we do it by holding hands and moving forward together."—Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute and New York Times bestselling author of Steve Jobs and Einstein: His Life and Universe
  • "This is a beautiful book about the things that matter--love, death, grief, anger, regret, renewal, the life of the mind, the life of the heart, and the life of the world around you. Anne Gisleson is a brave and gifted writer, with the wisdom to embrace empathy and connection, not to mention intellectual curiosity, in an existence that can only ever be filled with uncertainty. I just wish I could join her reading club."
    Sam Lipsyte, New York Times bestselling author of The Ask
  • "Boozy, brilliant, beautiful, tragic, and deeply affecting, The Futilitarians is my favorite memoir of the year."
    Jami Attenberg, New York Times bestselling author of The Middlesteins
  • "A wonderful and profoundly moving personal memoir of loss and resilience, and an unforgettable tribute to the great good that comes from reading great books (and talking about them!) Through long evenings of conversation fueled by food, wine, and more wine, the Existential Crisis Reading Group finds sustaining joy in literature, art, community, and yes, family. This book will move you to tears, to laughter, and to joy--and will leave you with a renewed awe for all the unexpected gifts that being alive allows, including the special joy of finding a great book like The Futilitarians."
    Nina Sankovitch, author of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair
  • "Gisleson's memoir is a compassionate journey through personal grief, as well as a smart compendium of literature . . . What ensues is dynamic examination of human suffering and human joy . . . Most moving is her hard look at her twin sisters' lives . . . Her narrative is a wonderful look at friendship and grief, as well as an enlightening personal journey."—Publishers Weekly
  • "An engrossing memoir chronicling a search for spiritual healing . . . A graceful narrative that seamlessly interweaves philosophical reflections and intimate revelations."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "With beautiful writing, Gisleson effortlessly weaves existentialism around narrative, challenging and engaging readers with a seamless blend of theory and memoir. Writer and educator Gisleson's first book-length work weighs heavy with life's toughest questions and then instantaneously elevates the soul with hope, making for a charming, captivating, and incredibly smart must-read."—Melissa Norstedt, Booklist
  • "[The Futilitarians] seamlessly melds together Gisleson's story, New Orleans' ongoing recovery, and existential discovery."—Carla Jean Whitley, BookPage
  • "Readers interested in expanding their reading lists, as well as those fascinated by New Orleans, will find this a meaty work."—Rachael Dreyer, Library Journal
  • On Sale
    Jul 31, 2018
    Page Count
    272 pages
    Back Bay Books

    Anne Gisleson

    About the Author

    Anne Gisleson‘s work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Oxford American, The Believer, Ecotone, and The Los Angeles Times and has been selected for inclusion in several anthologies, including Best American Non-Required Reading. For years, Anne was chair of the Creative Writing Program at the internationally-renowned New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. In 2005, she co-founded Antenna in New Orleans, where she lives.

    Learn more about this author