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

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore

by Benjamin Hale
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

The Ask

By Sam Lipsyte
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

by Clancy Martin
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

The Reserve

by Russell Banks
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

by Alice Sebold
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

The New Yorkers

by Cathleen Schine, with drawings by Leanne Shapton
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

Mothers and Sons: Stories

by Colm Tóibìn
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

The Dissident

by Nell Freudenberger
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 …