Justin Taylor

  • Rand Illusion

    WHEN A NOVELIST'S sophomore novel is narrated by a novelist bemoaning the New York Times review of her first novel, even the most auto-skeptical critic might be forgiven for pulling up a search window. Turns out that the Times review of Lexi Freiman’s Inappropriation (2018) is nothing like the “cancellation” her character, Anna, undergoes in The Book of Ayn. However, the review does begin by declaring that “Satire is a difficult genre to neatly define,” followed immediately by a definition that is roughly what you’d get by googling “satire definition.” You can hardly blame Freiman if reading

  • Brood Meridian

    “IT MAY BE THAT THE subconscious is really a committee,” Cormac McCarthy tells Oprah in their 2007 interview, a full eight years before he could have gotten the idea from Disney-Pixar’s Inside Out. “They may have meetings and say, ‘What do you think we should tell him? Should we tell him that? Nah, he’s not ready for that.’ . . . Sometimes the sense of the subconscious and its role in your life is just something you can’t ignore. It may have to do with the subconscious being older than language, and maybe it’s more comfortable creating little dramas than telling you things, but it has to

  • Doppelgänger, Poltergeist

    A SPECTER IS HAUNTING AUTOFICTION. The specter of ripping off your life for your novel and not making a whole goddamn thing about it. Elizabeth Hardwick’s unnamed narrator spent her Sleepless Nights in Elizabeth Hardwick’s apartment and it worked out fine for both of them. Roth had Zuckerman and, later, “Roth,” and later still Lisa Halliday had “Ezra Blazer.” There have been abundant Dennises Cooper, Joshuas Cohen, and Dianes Williams. Sebald and Bellow—just saying the names should be enough. Jamaica Kincaid gave Lucy her own birthday. Then you’ve got the New Narrative movement of the ’70s and

  • Already Dead

    I DROVE ACROSS the Everglades in May. I had originally planned to take Alligator Alley, but someone tipped me off that, in the twenty years since I left South Florida, the historically wild and lonesome stretch of road had been fully incorporated into I-75, turned into a standard highway corridor with tall concrete walls on both sides, designed to keep the traffic noise in and the alligators out. So on the drive west from Boynton Beach, I took the northern route, skirting along the bottom of Lake Okeechobee (which you can’t see from the road) through new subdivisions and past a succession of

  • A Ghost Is Born

    IN 1975, BREECE D’J PANCAKE was a twenty-three-year-old English teacher at Staunton Military Academy in the Shenandoah Valley. He was half a day’s drive from Milton, West Virginia, where he’d grown up. He hated the brutal, stultifying culture of the school, but the job was enough to support himself as long as he lived cheaply, which was important because his father had multiple sclerosis and could no longer work. His parents, Helen and C. R., said they were getting by, but he worried about their long-term financial security. Pancake was a loner, a dreamer, a contrarian, a depressive—in short,

  • Purity of the Heart Is to Follow One Thing

    SØREN KIERKEGAARD WAS AN EARNEST, brilliant, difficult, vituperative, sensitive, sickly emo brat whose statue in the Valhalla of Sad Young Literary Men is surely the size of a Bamiyan Buddha. He was a Christian whose devoutness was so idiosyncratic as to be functionally indistinct from heresy; who lived large on family money until the money ran out and then died so promptly that you’d almost think he planned the photo finish; who tried and failed to save Christianity from itself, but succeeded (without really trying) in founding “a new philosophical style, rooted in the inward drama of being

  • The Moore the Merrier

    Please don’t bury me

    Down in that cold, cold ground

    No, I’d rather have ’em cut me up

    And pass me all around

    John Prine, “Please Don't Bury Me”

    Fearful indeed the suspicion—but more fearful the doom! It may be asserted, without hesitation, that no event is so terribly well adapted to inspire the supremeness of bodily and of mental distress, as is burial before death.

    Edgar Allan Poe, “The Premature Burial”

    There could be unexpected chiming or clanging.

    —Lorrie Moore, “Author’s Note” to Collected Stories


  • Elegant Variations

    “I do not believe in serendipity,” says Percy, the narrator of Jessi Jezewska Stevens’s The Exhibition of Persephone Q. “I don’t think there are moments, of which so many people speak, in which a life irrevocably and neatly forks, like a line in your palm. I believe instead that the past returns to you in waves, crashing onto the shore, so that the ground on which you stand is always shifting, like a beach, imperceptibly renewed.” I found myself returning to this passage throughout my reading, and for some days afterward, trying to decide whether I believed it, either as a general proposition

  • culture August 12, 2019

    David Berman (1967–2019)

    Three writers pay tribute to the poet and songwriter David Berman, who passed away last week. Berman was the inimitable force behind the bands the Silver Jews and, most recently, Purple Mountains. His book of poems, Actual Air, was published by the books arm of the legendary Open City in 1999, and remains a cult classic.


    By Christian Lorentzen

    There’s long been an urge to believe that rock ’n’ roll is, or can, or could, or should, be poetry. It was the impulse behind the Nobel Prize for Literature awarded in 2016 to Bob Dylan, and it’s the reason we’ve seen lines

  • Too Loud a Solitude

    JUSTIN TAYLOR: Let’s start at the beginning. You started working as a journalist and a critic fairly young, fresh out of undergrad, yeah?

    JOSHUA COHEN: 2001, yup. Just before 9/11, aka Ten Days After The Corrections Was Published.

    The true beginning of the twenty-first century. You say in your introduction to your new book Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction that you’d “always planned” on being a writer, but I get the sense that you didn’t always plan on this type of writing in particular. It was novels you had on your mind and then this just . . . happened?

    I was an idiot.

  • Seizing the Day

    I know it’s not a popular opinion, but I’ve always felt that Saul Bellow did some of his finest work in the short story. They’re almost all novella-length, but even so, the limit imposed by the form provides a propitious counterforce to Bellow’s natural maximalism, and the results feel simultaneously epic and economical. I readily rank his Collected Stories up there with Herzog and Augie March at the apex of the Bellow canon—assuming, which I suppose I shouldn’t, that such a thing still exists. Moreover, Bellow’s stories often find him mining his early, formative experiences as the child of

  • Tongues Untied

    IS HAROLD BRODKEY THE GREATEST—or at any rate, the most lauded—writer who never produced a great book? His 1958 debut, First Love and Other Sorrows, was a big hit but hasn’t aged well. Sure, “The State of Grace,” the title story, and “The Quarrel” form a brilliant little trilogy, sharing a narrator and depicting a midcentury adolescence made numinous by yearning—economic, intellectual, cultural, erotic; take your pick if you can tell them apart. A male classmate in “First Love . . .” looks “like a statue that had been rubbed with honey and warm wax, to get a golden tone, and he carried at all

  • culture October 25, 2016

    Eliot Weinberger, To Be Continued

    “Memory,” says Plotinus, “is for those who have forgotten.” The gods have no memory because they know no time, have no need to fight against time, have no fragments of what has been lost to recollect, to re-collect. In India, with its vast stretches of time, with its same lives appearing and appearing again, there is no distinction between learning and remembering. You knew it in your past lives, you have always known it, to learn is to re-mind yourself, bring yourself back into the mind of universal knowledge. Says the Jaiminiya Upanishad: “It is the unknown that you should remember.” And

  • Textual Dysfunction

    Rebecca Schiff’s debut story collection, The Bed Moved, is a shorter-than-average book of shorter-than-average fictions about misanthropes who are (or may as well be) near-miss versions of each other, all of whom find the same pained comedy in sex, death, Brooklyn, Judaism, and summer camp. The title story, two pages long and the first piece in the book, opens with an unnamed narrator reporting that “There were film majors in my bed—they talked about film. There were poets, coxswains, guys trying to grow beards.” Two or three other stories open with similar lists, and one called “Third Person”

  • My Brilliant Friend

    There aren’t five other living American authors as meticulous and shrewd as Dana Spiotta, as willing (to say nothing of able) to shape true esotericism into such consistently accessible forms. Her novels—four of them to date, arriving roughly every half decade—are taut and scintillant, intermittently comic though without much risk of becoming “comedies,”a quality her work shares with that of her longtime mentor, Don DeLillo. Her new novel, Innocents and Others, reprises many of her signature themes—Los Angeles, film, the long shadow of the ’60s, the loneliness of lives lived in disguise—but

  • Things Fall Apart

    The first time I read The Laughing Monsters, I found it easy to love line by line—Denis Johnson’s prose, as always, is incandescent—but as scenes and chapters piled up I struggled to sustain a sense, however provisional, of what it was actually about, beyond the obvious: that the narrator is a corrupt intelligence operative named Roland Nair who has returned to Sierra Leone after eleven years’ absence to hook up with an old friend and try to make some money, as they did once before. There’s a lot of setup and backstory, several plots (that is, conspiracies) running alongside one another, and

  • A Bolt from the Blues

    Since its publication in 2008, Fiona Maazel’s first novel, Last Last Chance, has won a small and cultlike following, myself included. I love the book because it is constantly surprising—blackly funny but permeated by great sadness, like the fiction of Barry Hannah or Donald Antrim—besides which every sentence in it shines like gold. The story of an über-rich drug addict and her massively dysfunctional family (they smoke crack, worship Norse gods, release an apocalyptic super-plague), Last Last Chance is a smarter and bleaker book than it gets credit for, but it’s still, at bottom, a comedy:

  • Woes Make the Man

    Donald Antrim once described the books he spent the 1990s writing as a "more or less related series of novels [that] concern themselves with aspects of American life—small town politics; fraternity and patriarchy; psychoanalysis and sex." The first novel, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World (1993), is narrated by a former third-grade teacher in a small seaside Florida town who entertains Walter Mitty–ish fantasies of becoming mayor while his wife becomes involved with a local cult and the neighbors lay mines, moats, and tiger pits in their finely manicured lawns. (The mayoralty is open because

  • culture November 30, 2011

    The Triumph of the Possible

    I first became interested in novels by and about poets roughly three years ago. I was working on what would become my first novel, The Gospel of Anarchy (about an anarchist collective–cum–Christian mystery cult), and spending a lot of time thinking about Harold Bloom’s notion that “all religion is a kind of spilled poetry, bad and good.” This profound and pithy little fragment, which itself might have spilled from Kafka’s aphorisms, appears in his nonfiction book The American Religion, and eventually I came to understand it as the “secret epigraph” to my novel.

  • culture September 20, 2011

    Nobody Ever Gets Lost by Jess Row

    In prose at once evocative and restrained, the seven stories in Jess Row’s debut collection, The Train to Lo Wu (2005), gave rich, full life to Hong Kong in the years just after the British handover to the Chinese. Having spent some time in Hong Kong myself, it was my belief that Row’s quietly desperate characters—natives, mainland Chinese, ex-pat artists, and the global business class—were simply attuned to the loneliness of the fast-moving, atomized megalopolis. (The Mongkok district, for example, boasts the world’s highest population density, but you can spend an entire day there without