Jenny Davidson

  • The Agony and the Ecstasy

    Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel asks for a kind of immersion at odds with the practices of contemporary attention-deficit culture. A Little Life is epic in scope, riveting on every page, and frequently stomach-churning in its explorations of pain and loss. The novel takes up the stories of four college roommates, all of them young men of exceptional drive, talent, and personal attraction, as they live through three decades following their graduation at some unspecified point early in the twenty-first century. Jude and Willem are orphaned, JB and Malcolm come from loving families, but each one

  • Everybody Hurts

    If you like Joan Didion’s writing, her neurasthenic intelligence captivates; if not, its self-involvement—the tendency toward a princess-and-the-pea-like oversensitivity—can become intolerable. Leslie Jamison’s new collection of essays about bodies and their maladies provokes a similar set of responses. The title essay juxtaposes Jamison’s job as a performer who acts out symptoms for medical students with her very real experiences as a patient who undergoes an abortion and heart surgery in the same month; other pieces include a subtle and interesting report on one of ultrarunning’s most difficult

  • Conversion Starter

    Historical fiction has always served as a partial exception to the widely accepted notion that a clear line divides literary fiction from its associates across the aisle in crime, science fiction and fantasy, romance, and so forth. Many of the canonically anointed authors of the European realist novel—Scott, Dickens, Hugo, Eliot, Tolstoy—embraced historical settings, and it is also the case, as Georg Lukács suggested, that realist fiction is written in and about history even when it depicts incidents that take place very close to the time of its composition: Balzac wrote historical novels of

  • The Unreal World

    In the best chapter in Hallucinations, Oliver Sacks describes his own history of experimentation with drugs during his thirties, when he was a neurology resident in Southern California on a quest to satisfy an obsessive curiosity about the neurochemical background of dreams and hallucinations. A day on Artane, a synthetic drug allied to belladonna that in large doses can induce delirium, featured a visit from his friends Jim and Kathy. Sacks cooked ham and eggs, chatting with them as he stood in the kitchen and they sat in the living room, then put breakfast on a tray and carried it to them,

  • Dollars Damn Me

    IS MONEY AS INTEGRAL a topic for the novel as war is for the epic? Robinson Crusoe, pillaging the shipwreck for amenities to make island life tolerable, thinks philosophically that the gold he finds on board will be of infinitely less use to him than one ordinary knife, but on second thought takes the money away with him just in case. What would Pride and Prejudice be without the entail that threatens to evict the Bennet daughters from their home, or The House of Mirth without Lily Bart’s disastrous descent into debt? “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six,

  • culture March 07, 2012

    By Blood by Ellen Ullman

    A vast gulf separates us from the incidents described in Ellen Ullman’s new novel By Blood: a gulf the approximate size and shape of the Internet. The pieces of technology that matter in By Blood’s San Francisco-circa-1974 feel positively antediluvian: the sound machine that masks the therapy sessions taking place in the office next door to our narrator (a disgraced professor facing sexual misconduct charges) but that’s periodically turned off at the request of one patient, on whose sessions the narrator compulsively eavesdrops; the reel-to-reel tape recorder the patient takes with her to Israel

  • The Broken Elegy

    Sarah Manguso’s prose elegy for a friend who died when he jumped onto the tracks as a Metro-North train pulled into the 254th Street station in Riverdale is odd, fragmentary, obstinately unbalanced. On July 23, 2008, musician and software engineer Harris Wulfson checked himself out of a psychiatric ward and died roughly ten hours later, his actions and whereabouts in the intervening hours never accounted for. Manguso admits up front that she has little access to the events leading up to the death. She had been in Rome, on a writing fellowship, for the last year of Wulfson’s life, and

  • Guided by the Lit

    No sooner had essays and novels emerged as popular literary forms in seventeenth-century Europe than readers came to seek in them the kinds of spiritual and practical guidance they had always found in more overtly philosophical works like Ecclesiastes and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. The eighteenth-century novelist Samuel Richardson was certainly aware of this when he extracted what he called “moral and instructive sentiments, maxims, cautions, and reflexions” from his own novels and published them as a separate volume. The desire to distill wisdom from literature is still with us, albeit


    In a mesmerizing film clip from 1975, the British anatomist John Zachary Young dissects a squid just smaller than his forearm. (The clip can be seen online at Young wields a pair of shears with considerable brio as he cuts open the mantle cavity and uncovers the nerves that radiate, starlike, beneath the skin. Some forty years earlier, shortly before he first identified the squid giant axon, Young had mistaken these transparent tubular structures (as much as a millimeter in diameter) for blood vessels, but in fact