In March 2003, the young American novelist Heidi Julavits wrote a long, wandering essay for the first issue of The Believer, the new literary magazine of which she was a founding editor (with backing from Dave Eggers, the memoirist, novelist, admirable philanthropist, and canny literary entrepreneur behind the McSweeney’s imprint). Picturing herself working at home, pajama-clad, sipping a beer, and finding the courage to forgo safe politeness and speak the truth, Julavits described the shrinking of a creativity-sustaining literary culture. She declared that readers and writers were poorly served by a growing tendency among book reviewers to skip past substantive engagement and indulge in lazy inflationary praise, or else its opposite: a “hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt.” Julavits’s name for this smug tone, “snark,” resonated enough with the reader’s experience to suggest that she was on to something and maybe even gutsy for saying it. On the other hand, where a detached editor might have urged her to tighten her analysis—prune this unfairness, anchor that blitheness—she tended to take the less mediated path. In places her argument sounded less like an argument than a theater piece in the voice of a rather high-strung character named Heidi Julavits.
And so the essay provoked about as well as it persuaded: a bemused Clive James Op-Ed in The New York Times, a piece in The New Republic (publisher of book reviews by Dale Peck that Julavits singled out for their harshness) accusing The Believer of taking “masturbatory pleasure in the act of reading” and Julavits’s manifesto of reading like a “publicity spree in the guise of a mission statement.” Here was one of those debates, with a close parallel in contemporary politics and journalism, which we seem fated to endure lately—one view champions fresh experimenting and earnest conviction, another declares its duty to guard the gates of critical seriousness.
I bring up the essay because the question of whether one person can, in fact, ever truly be listened to by another turns out to be of special concern to Julavits in her fiction. But where in the Believer piece she declared her idealistic intent to open up discussion, enlarge perspectives (“reviews should be an occasion, not for tears or vendettas or shoe licking, but for dialogues”; “finally, I would hope to urge readers—and, by extension, writers—to reach beyond their usual notions of what is accessible or possible”) each of her three novels has been staged in a world of awful listeners. And each has featured a seemingly passive female protagonist who lacks the psychic wherewithal to make herself heard.
The Mineral Palace (2000), Julavits’s first novel and easily her weakest, follows a young mother who moves with her husband, an emotionally absent doctor, from Minnesota to Pueblo, Colorado. This is in the 1930s—or rather a strange, virtual rendering of the Depression out west, thick with metaphor and a dusty, sordid, slightly déjà vu atmosphere, as if instead of revisiting noir Los …