As students face skyrocketing tuition and absorb crippling debt for increasingly questionable returns, who will mourn the quaint campus novel? In Talent, a propulsive fiction debut from local writer and Atlantic editor Juliet Lapidos, this subtext serves as a psychological battlefield. The futility of a modern academic calling is breezily lampooned through the mouths of liberal arts graduate students, Ph.D. candidates in Yale’s English department. Once the brightest young minds of a nation, Lapidos’ scholars are stunted, liminal creatures, squandering their young adulthoods in a waning port city, listening to lectures they won’t remember, and compiling arbitrary dissertations no one will read. The ideals of learning and critical thinking for their own sakes are preposterous luxuries given the scant number of tenured professorships awaiting them.
Anna Brisker, a once-promising burnout, had set out to write an ambitious thesis on the nature of artistic inspiration. Where early civilizations attributed transcendent artistry to divine provenance, subsequent cultures viewed it as a function of nose-to-the-grindstone devotion. Anna’s conviction is that great art is the result of solemn work rather than rapturous enlightenment, but floundering in her seventh year of studies, she finds herself intellectually suffocated—incentivized to condense centuries of literature into a simplistic categorical argument. Desperately seeking a case study to fit her thesis’ pre-ordained narrative, she happens upon the niece of Frederick Langley, a Salinger-esque literary phenomenon who established a cult following as a young writer, spent decades in reclusion, and, Anna learns, briefly resumed writing fiction before his death.
Together the young women foment an expedient explanation for the late author’s irregular output, deciding that a Freudian focus dictated his productive years. But Langley’s niece Helen is herself a shadowy figure with a personal investment in Anna’s pursuit: The Yale library houses a valuable collection of Langley’s papers to which Helen believes herself the rightful heir. In the throes of academic malaise, Anna becomes sympathetic with Helen’s contention that Langley’s brilliance was not intended for critical eyes.
If a nested academic thriller weren’t heady enough on its own, Anna’s thesis is a forthright allegory of Matthew 25’s Parable of the Talents, evoked in a variegated sequence of discursive metaphors. The less resonant episodes are plagued by heavy-handed dialogue (“You presume to study writers, to use their creativity for your own ends,” Helen diagnoses Anna) and allusions stretched thin. Still, Lapidos maintains a sprightly pace and compelling atmosphere which concisely melds the charms of hallowed academe with contemporary ennui and suspenseful intrigue. While a less-than-reliable narrator, Anna’s first-person accounts thrum with kinetic wit, veering off into manic mid-conversation asides on architecture and orthography.
Anna’s downfall might be termed When Lit Crit Goes Wrong, but even that would be selling it short. In Lapidos’ hands, the act of textual analysis—not to mention the wider realms of scholarship and human interaction—becomes a parasitic perversion, a squalid deployment of creative innovation to self-promotional ends. Talent is an appeal to approach literature on its own terms, submitting that critical values are predicated on callous vivisection and haphazard groupthink. As such, the parable is an apt figuration. Disastrously unmotivated, Anna recognizes that all the raw effort in the world won’t make for a good thesis without the spark of intuition. The concept of just desserts among competing interests—Anna versus Helen, writer versus reader, teacher versus student, art versus commerce—is the book’s chief consideration.
The abiding rationale that Anna ultimately disowns is that only an audience can bestow meaning upon literature. Talent’s logical argument—that criticism robs creatives of agency—would defang any verdict I proposed here regarding the book’s significance. So instead I’ll enjoin readers to engage directly with Lapidos’s worthwhile treatise.
Juliet Lapidos will be in conversation with author David Litt at Politics and Prose at Union Market on Jan. 27. 1270 5th St. NE. 5 p.m. Free.