Critical Assessment

“The novel’s ability to seduce readers with its alternate, and invariably more attractive, versions of reality was much lamented in the 19th century. Thomas Jefferson blamed literature for encouraging ‘a bloated imagination, sickly judgment and disgust towards all the real businesses of life.’ But it is this very power — to inspire us to insist a flock of sheep is an opposing army — that is literature’s true subject, according to the critic and journalist Elif Batuman. Novels are about other novels — and how they make us suffer, she wrote in her 2010 essay collection, ‘The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.’ They are about ‘the protagonist’s struggle to transform his arbitrary, fragmented, given experience into a narrative as meaningful as his favorite books.’ . . .

“Batuman is an energetic and charming writer and, perhaps, there are wages to this kind of charm — namely in remembering to relinquish it when you need to, remembering to risk being messy, boring or obvious to get at those truths only fiction, she tells us, can access. But for all these moments of evasion, there is more oxygen, more life in this book, than in a shelf of its peers. And in the way of the best characters, Batuman’s creations are not bound by the book that created them. They seem released into the world.”

Parul Sehgal, “An Unassuming Heroine Envies Her Harvard Classmates the Confidence of Their Convictions,” The New York Times, March 27, 2017.

First Excerpt

“Insofar as I’d had any idea about it at all, I had imagined that email would resemble faxing, and would involve a printer. But there was no printer. There was another world. You could access it from certain computers, which were scattered throughout the ordinary landscape, and looked no different from regular computers. Always there, unchanged, in a configuration nobody else could see, was a glowing list of messages from all the people you knew, and from people you didn’t know, all in the same letters, like the universal handwriting of thought or of the world. Some messages were formally epistolary, with ‘Dear’ and ‘Sincerely’; others telegraphic, all in lowercase with missing punctuation, like they were being beamed straight from people’s brains. And each message contained the one that had come before, so your own words came back to you—all the words you threw out, they came back. It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your life with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated, and you could check it at any time.”

 Second Excerpt