Iris Murdoch, A Severed Head

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch My rating: 3 of 5 stars This strange 1961 novel—which succeeded The Bell, a far more conventionally realist novel, in Murdoch's oeuvre—seems to have a cult following, as indicated by recent recommendations by Susan Scarf Merrell in The New York Times and Gabe Habash in The Millions. As Habash … Continue reading Iris Murdoch, A Severed Head

Richard Ellmann, James Joyce

James Joyce by Richard Ellmann My rating: 4 of 5 stars Biography must be the most traditional, even rigid, of the prose genres, exceeding murder mysteries or romance novels. It marches from birth to death (or from family history to cultural legacy) at the stately pace of the old three-volume Victorian novel and with the … Continue reading Richard Ellmann, James Joyce

Renata Adler, Speedboat

Speedboat by Renata Adler My rating: 4 of 5 stars Almost every member of American literature's last unambiguously major generation, the giants passing from the scene, was born in the 1930s: Carver (b. 1938), DeLillo (b. 1936), Didion (b. 1934), McCarthy (b. 1933), Morrison (b. 1931), Oates (b. 1938), Pynchon (b. 1937), Roth (b. 1933), … Continue reading Renata Adler, Speedboat

Joan Didion, Play It as It Lays

Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion My rating: 5 of 5 stars She had announced her willingness to cause her subjects pain in Slouching towards Bethlehem, but at the heart of Didion's sense of morality and her sense of style, which cannot be separated, hurting the reader's feelings is also part of the … Continue reading Joan Didion, Play It as It Lays

Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children Archive

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli My rating: 4 of 5 stars Intellectuals played at crusaders and revolutionaries only to discover they were still patricians and liberals. [...] "Liberalism" seems a vast, obscure, swampy territory one never emerges from, no matter how one tries—and perhaps one never should. —Susan Sontag, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, … Continue reading Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children Archive

Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre My rating: 2 of 5 stars In the Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre's classic 1938 first novel, you can find many of the characteristics of the last decade or two's contemporary fiction: fragmentation, negative affect, indifference to plot or style, veiled autobiography, and a general conviction of ambient meaninglessness lit only by … Continue reading Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

Manifesto, Advertisement, and Excerpt: Introducing The Class of 2000

What is fiction? What is it for? Hints at an answer to these imponderables turn up in the unlikeliest places. For example, in an old article on psychology's replication crisis: If it turned out that people were so variable that even very close replications threw up entirely different results, “it would mean that we could … Continue reading Manifesto, Advertisement, and Excerpt: Introducing The Class of 2000

Graham Greene, The Quiet American

The Quiet American by Graham Greene My rating: 4 of 5 stars In a recent article, Leigh Jenco asserts that a "de-colonizing" approach to diversifying university humanities curricula has its limits. The problem is not only that the implicit leftist, progressive underpinning of such a program conflicts with intellectual traditions that developed outside the Christian-Enlightenment paradigm (a … Continue reading Graham Greene, The Quiet American

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen My rating: 3 of 5 stars The ambition and audacity of this Pulitzer-prize-winning 2015 novel can't be denied. Synthesizing postcolonial theory with the tradition of the Great American Novel, Nguyen retells the story of the Vietnam War and its aftermath from the perspective of—not quite one of its victims, … Continue reading Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer

Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17

Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany My rating: 4 of 5 stars In a coruscating epistolary critique of The Bluest Eye, innocuously titled "Letter to Q——" in the 2005 collection About Writing, Samuel R. Delany tabulates what he sees as the many flaws of Toni Morrison's classic first novel. The gravamen of his indictment is that Morrison … Continue reading Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17