I first encountered Leigh Stein in a Classics course at Brooklyn College in the spring of 2010. She sat adjacent to me, and as the professor recounted the Iliad’s instances of aristia, Leigh would write furiously in her notebook any words, phrases, or descriptions pertaining to the text. I found this technique captivating because, already having knowledge of Leigh’s accomplishments as a poet and fiction writer, I imagined her entries as alternative versions to Homer’s epic, wherein Helen of Troy develops a chronic case of acne after promising to be bestowed to Paris, or Achilles becomes fatally dizzy after chasing Hector around Troy’s walls.
Similar to this fashion, Leigh Stein’s delightful and hilarious debut novel, The Fallback Plan, is a vertiginous rewriting of what do after college when even one’s fallback plan is hardly a sustainable option. Stein’s narrator, Esther Kohler, accepts this fate as social common sense, i.e., is externally apathetic to moving back in with her parents or watching her capricious boy interest, Jack, fumble with his prettier girlfriend. She is reservedly jealous of her friend Tierney who writes her letters from Rome, and bemused by her friend Pickle, whose preoccupation with weed and video games starts to rub off on her. So what does one do when job searching becomes a laughable prospect and one’s Wellbutrin recreation runs dry? Take a babysitting job, of course, set up by none other than Esther’s assiduously proud mother.
In an otherwise straightforward plot, Stein meticulously draws out Esther’s postponed career as a babysitter for the Browns’ daughter May. Esther, the self-effacing “Jewess”, becomes the first-hand spectator of Amy Brown’s reclusive ways and her husband Nate’s equivocal motives towards Esther as well as his family. Esther reveals to us that the Brown’s first child had died six months earlier, and as we watch the Browns try to move away from the past, we see Esther growing closer to May just as May’s parents secretly try to work out their own problems through Esther. This appears morally comforting, but Stein won’t let us get off that easily. The implication of the Brown’s tragedy combined with Esther’s droll approach to most everything unwinds slowly, and when it wants to seriously impact, Stein cleverly weaves the narrative with vignettes of Esther’s rendition of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe starring a panda. Esther’s half-serious fallback plan as a screenwriter for this concept is amusing, but we can also be sure that this “plan” is no less arbitrary than any other.
Stein’s poetic trademark is all over this novel, as Esther writes herself so effortlessly into pop culture and literature, making a farce out of the now accepted recourse of going home after college. And similar to Stein’s poems, the confessional style submits itself to the confident self-assurance of the self-conscious, as if it were mere clockwork. Stein’s original and practiced technique allows Esther to move through the scenes so unguided we take her unbridled thoughts and opinions as true wisdom. And this characteristic makes The Fallback Plan one of the most honest purveyors of the allure of lacking practical objective after college.
—Matthew Daddona is a poetry and fiction writer based in New York. His work has appeared in Slice, Anderbo, InDigest, Barely South Review, Assisi, and Mad Swirl. He works in the publishing industry.