Jennifer Schuessler is an editor at The New York Times Book Review. (March 2011)

Aping His Inferiors

Nim Chimpsky speaking in sign language with one of his teachers, Joyce Butler, 1970s
Bruno Littlemore is an American ape, Chicago born—and if you don’t hear the affinity between this “first-generation immigrant to the human species” and Augie March, Alexander Portnoy, and all the other lusty, fast-talking strivers of postwar American literature, then you haven’t spent as much time in the libraries of Hyde Park as he has. Bruno has the autodidact’s fondness for the ostentatious literary reference, and never simply suffers insomnia when the “red-eyed monster of sleeplessness” can drive Hypnos from his bed. In the first forty pages alone, we get references to Thoreau, Freud, Cézanne, Woyzeck, Kafka, and Artaud. When a researcher dangles a Prufrockian peach as reward in a scientific experiment, you can be sure that Bruno will dare to eat his allusion and have it too.

The Book of Guys

Sam Lipsyte, New York City, 2006; photograph by Marion Ettlinger
If you’ve heard anything about Sam Lipsyte, you’ve probably heard that he’s funny. Scabrously, deliriously, piss-yourself funny (his characters would no doubt find a dirtier, and funnier, way of putting it), drawing audible snorts even from the kind of people, such as the people in his novels, who are way …

The Embrace of Bling

Clancy Martin in front of Claes Oldenburg’s sculpture Shuttlecocks, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, February 2009; photograph by Daniel Shea
How to Sell is the kind of novel that leaves you feeling both a lot smarter and a lot dumber. Sure, you may know that if your brand-new two-tone ladies’ Rolex has suddenly stopped running, you probably just left it on the counter long enough to thwart the automatic winding …

The Artist and the Upper Class

In a career spanning some forty years and sixteen books of fiction, Russell Banks has established himself as our foremost chronicler of hardscrabble lives in economically depressed northern New England and upstate New York. This may sound like an awfully small patch of literary ground, but Banks has created from …

Mommie Dearest

The Almost Moon, Alice Sebold’s second novel, is the story of a mother-daughter hate affair. The daughter in question is Helen Knightly, a forty-nine-year-old divorced mother of two who works as a nude artist’s model at a college in a depressed area in central Pennsylvania. Her eighty-eight-year-old mother, who lives …

Doggy Affections

In two decades and seven novels, Cathleen Schine has made a specialty of creating spirited if mildly depressive heroines in search of a brainy conceit to live by, whether it’s birdwatching (To the Birdhouse), French Enlightenment philosophy (Rameau’s Niece), Darwinian theory (The Evolution of Jane), or Flaubert’s famous dictum about …

Gorgeously Minimal

Since the publication of his first novel, The South (1990), Colm Tóibìn has established himself as a writer with an unusual grasp of lives lived in the shadow of history, of both the national and familial variety. What his fictions tend to lack in hopeful endings and other easy consolations, …

The Terrified Copyist

With Lucky Girls, her 2003 story collection about privileged young Americans abroad, Nell Freudenberger announced herself as a young writer of unusual grace and promise. If she didn’t make the subject entirely new, she updated it for the early twenty-first century, when the grand tour takes recent graduates not to …

Family Values

With her first two novels, Gish Jen established herself as one of the leading literary chroniclers of the Chinese-American experience—a phrase that neatly sums up her subject matter but fails to convey the subtlety, irony, and fleet-footed wit of her approach to the old story of immigrants making it in …

Vive la Différence

In 1999, when the French government passed its new civil union law, known as the Pacte civil de solidarité, or PACS, many of the legal benefits of marriage were extended to those linked in a whole new range of attachments: same-sex couples, elderly maiden sisters, even celibate priests and their …

God and the Critic

In the fifteen years since he first began reviewing books for a living, the British writer James Wood has established himself as perhaps the strongest, and strangest, literary critic we have. In his frequent essays for The New Republic (where he is a senior editor) and various other publications on …

Hello, Dolly!

One day early in December, readers may have noticed a peculiar cat-and-mouse game in the pages of The New York Times. A story on the front page trumpeted yet another milestone in scientific history: the official release of the first rough draft of the complete mouse genome, which revealed a …

Jigsaw

The Widow’s Children, Paula Fox’s eerily intense 1976 novel about a nasty family evening, begins with a scene of arming for battle. Clara Hansen, a twenty-nine-year-old single woman in New York City, is getting ready for a gathering in the hotel room of her mother, Laura Maldonada, a monstrously caustic …

In the Radical Nursery

A few fierce sentences into the title chapter of Dorothy Gallagher’s memoir, readers might be forgiven that sinking feeling of being spectators at yet another act of literary revenge by a grown child with a grievance. Gallagher’s parents are in their early nineties, living in a jury-rigged house in upstate …