BoJack Horseman is a Netflix original animated series depicting the glamorous, though slightly sordid, lives of the people in Los Angeles. The characters mostly take the form of anthropomorphized animals, though there are a few normal people (if anyone is truly “normal” in a world in which bipedal horses and dogs talk in English). The eponymous character, horse man by name and nature, is a former television star now deep in the throes of depression.
BoJack’s themes are unusually dark for an animated show full of animal people. It deals with a wide range of issues, from mental illness to family trauma. Each character can be seen as a representation of the human psyche that we can all, perhaps unwittingly, relate to. Honestly, it makes it difficult to stop watching. You see yourself in the characters. You want to see what happens to them. Maybe you think it’s a forecast for your own life. But, as with all television seasons, it comes to an end. And until the next season is released, here is a list of books to keep you busy.
Coyote Doggirl by Lisa Hanawalt
BoJack Horseman owes its brilliant idea and execution to Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Lisa Hanawalt, respectively the writer and the cartoonist of the show. They met in high school, where their collaboration of stories and images began, but Hanawalt has been drawing anthropomorphized cartoon animals since she was a child. In addition to her work in television, she’s published three graphic novels. The latest of these, Coyote Doggirl, takes on a similar form and satirical undertone to that of BoJack. Instead of poking fun at Hollywood culture with the story of a half-man half-horse, this graphic novel satirizes the misogynistic themes pervading Western literature with the story of a half-coyote half-dog.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
BoJack does a meticulous job of depicting mental illness in the modern era, with every character representing a different way that some people cope with depression. But in season 4, a flashback to BoJack’s mother’s family reveals the way mental illness was treated before it became socially acceptable to even talk about it.
Hollywood’s Eve by Lili Anolik
If BoJack’s troubled young former costar Sarah Lynn were a real person, she might be Eve Babitz. If his autobiography ghostwriter Diane Nyugen were a real person, she would have written this book — about the effects of stardom on people like Lynn and Babitz, women whose lives are defined by the Hollywood (or Hollywoo) tabloids, who cannot escape the sexualization and objectification of mainstream media.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
If your eyes get tired of staring at a television screen, or if your laptop runs out of battery, or if, heaven forbid, your mother takes away access to her Netflix subscription and you can no longer watch BoJack Horseman, then I suggest reading My Year of Rest and Relaxation. The protagonist is both off putting and horribly relatable, making reading this novel an eerily similar experience to watching the infamous depressed horse self-destruct. We love and despise her for all the same reasons we love and despise BoJack; she sees the worst in everyone around her, her emotionally unavailable parents play a huge role in her depression, she has everything she could possibility ask for and still hates her life, and she turns to drugs as an easy fix to her mental turmoil.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
In David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus, the main character is dealing with a depression that can easily be likened to that of BoJack. Hal has no specific reason to complain, but he’s weighed down by an inescapable melancholy that he only knows how to combat through self-prescribed marijuana. Meanwhile, BoJack seemingly has everything anyone could want — money, fame, devoted friends — but he still finds himself with a scary black hole in his life that he tries to fill with alcohol. Read more about their similarities in an essay by Katy Koop.
Calypso by David Sedaris
Humor has to be added to this list. BoJack Horseman is, after all, a comedy — a fact that can be hard to keep in mind when almost every episode leaves you feeling like you’ve been punched in the gut. But this style of humor is not unique to the show, nor is the marriage of laughter with melancholy a new phenomenon. Darkness and comedy, as we know, go hand in hand, and David Sedaris is one of the most prominent writers of the genre. His latest book, a semi-autobiographical essay collection, explores the effects of family trauma on the Sedaris siblings — yes, that includes Amy Sedaris, the voice of BoJack’s agent (and one of the show’s most beloved characters) Princess Caroline. The action in Calypso is mainly centered around the oceanfront cottage that David Sedaris bought for his family, a setting not unlike the childhood house that BoJack visits in season 4 to connect with the ghosts of his family’s past.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Like the creators of BoJack Horseman, Alison Bechdel cushions the emotional blows of her affecting stories with fun images. In her graphic memoir, Fun Home, Bechdel portrays her memories from childhood, touching on similar themes to those in BoJack, including stoic parents, family deaths, and coming out. Bechdel writes about her father’s death, about how his secrets affected her family, and about her mother’s inability to comfort her when she desperately needed it. If Bechdel drew her characters with animal heads, it might be interchangeable with BoJack Horseman.
Let’s Talk about Love by Claire Kann
BoJack Horseman did something groundbreaking when Todd Chavez came out as asexual. Asexuality is rarely portrayed in media and entertainment, and when it is, it’s typically not in the form of a main character. The ace community has been talking about Todd Chavez since he sat across from his high school sweetheart and told her he was neither gay nor straight. This year, Claire Kann broke similar boundaries when she published her novel about an asexual character and her experience falling in love.
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
In The Friend, winner of the National Book Award for fiction, Sigrid Nunez illuminates the highs and lows of the literary community in New York City through a relationship between a female author and her dog. Though the connection to BoJack Horseman might seem a bit obvious — a writer in a devoted relationship with a dog? Sound familiar? — it is the beauty and tenderness with which Nunez portrays grief that really ties these two stories together. Diane Nyugen may have difficulty talking about her own feelings, but she is clearly an expert at writing about the feelings of others. Nunez’s protagonist struggles with identifying her own grief, but talks expertly about the life of the friend she recently lost.