Monday 21 October 2019

Talent: Literary satire, a mystery caper and a 'Talented' very funny debut

Fiction: Talent Juliet Lapidos

Borough Press

€15.99

Talent by Juliet Lapidos
Talent by Juliet Lapidos

Anne Cunningham

Anna Brisker is busy working on her dissertation for her PhD. Well, not that busy. She is in her seventh year of graduate school in Collegiate University in New Harbor (a very thinly-disguised Yale University in New Haven). Her dissertation is titled "Where Does Art Come From?" and is described by Anna herself as "an intellectual history of inspiration". Nuff said? Well, no, the op-ed editor of Atlantic Magazine, Juliet Lapidos, has a lot more to say in this funny and stylish debut.

Ms Brisker's problem is that she's running low on inspiration herself. And while she believes inspiration is about hard graft, rather than visits from the muses or the Holy Spirit, she needs to find some reference material to fatten up her calf, which her professor opines is "a little thin". Fattened calves and holy spirits are only part of Lapidos's narrative. The Parable of the Talents in St Matthew's gospel gets to do a turn as well - several turns, actually - as Anna finds herself down myriad rabbit holes in attempting to prove her "alternative theory. […] There's no such thing as inspiration. Writing is work like anything else. […] Bankers bank. Plumbers plumb. Sculptors sculpt. Writers write. It's like Leonard Wolf said: "The writer who goes out with the bucket daily seems to provoke the rain."

Her professor advises her to pick a writer - just one - as a case study for her argument. "This is basic," he says. "Fisher-Price My First Academic Paper". Anna Brisker is stung into action. While stockpiling her stash of Pop Tarts in the local supermarket, she meets Helen Langley, a supplier of first edition and rare books and also a fraud and a forger. She is the niece of Frederick Langley, a Salinger-esque type who, as a young man, published a couple of short story volumes which set the chattering classes alight, then retired into obscurity, never writing another word for the remainder of his lifetime. Or so everyone believes. But he did keep notebooks. They're under lock and key in the Collegiate archives. Helen needs to recover them, believing they are her inheritance. And Anna needs to read them…

Satires on that most precious of vocations - The Academic Life - are not new. In a world where everything published must fit neatly into a genre, some fine works of satire have been pigeonholed into the category of 'Campus Novels' - from Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim to Tom Sharpe's Porterhouse Blue, David Lodge's Nice Work and in more recent times, Zadie Smith's On Beauty and Ian McEwan's Solar. Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot is a more recent addition to this - ahem - classification model. Yet these novels are as disparate a bundle of style and content as you could find. And in Talent, Juliet Lapidos achieves much more than a sidelong snigger at anxious Ivy Leaguers who'd do anything - anything - for scholarly recognition. She's just as intent in going for the collective jugular of those despicable life-hack gurus who encourage us to obsess about continuously maximising our output - think Pendulum Summit and the like - with scant regard for what a quiet mind (and life) might achieve. She also takes many swipes at our most esteemed and distinguished lit-critters, depicting them as vampires who make a living from the toil and sweat of greater minds than theirs. You could write a dissertation on that.

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