Talent: A Novel
by Juliet Lapidos
“[TALENT is] one of those books that spoils the next book that you read, because you think ‘Huh, that’s not as good as the one I just read.” —Slate’s Culture Gabfest podcast
“Lapidos’ literary prowess is evident in this brilliantly witty and humorous debut. The novel’s layers explore the dangers of interpretation and the varying perceptions of one’s, and others’, intentions, all of which come together to make a thoroughly enjoyable read.” —Booklist
Anna Brisker is a 29-year-old graduate student in English at Collegiate University who can’t seem to finish her dissertation in Juliet Lapidos’s wickedly funny debut, TALENT (Little, Brown; January 22, 2019). Her project: an intellectual history of inspiration. Her take: that the way writers and artists describe the moment of inspiration — that it strikes indiscriminately, that it’s handed down from on high and entirely out of their control — is really just self-serving bullshit designed to elevate the artist above the rest of us. To Anna, whose academic prowess has never been in question, inspiration is just another name for good old-fashioned work. Plain and simple. And yet, for the first time, Anna has found herself utterly and truly uninspired. Rather than work on her thesis, she spends her days eating strawberry Pop-Tarts and wandering the streets of New Harbor in a state of perpetual procrastination.
It’s amid this unnerving stasis that Anna meets and strikes up a tenuous friendship with Helen Langley, a strangely compelling, free-spirited woman with a penchant for rare book forgery, who just so happens to be the niece of the legendary short story writer Frederick Langley. Freddy quickly penned three wildly successful collections as a young man in the 1960s, then published exactly nothing for the rest of his wayward, hermetic life. A possibly fatal case of writer’s block, or so say the critics; as Helen confides to Anna, Freddy kept secret notebooks in the last years of his life that are now under lock and key at Collegiate’s Elston Library, viewable at Helen’s sole discretion. Inspired, uninspired, potentially reinspired — a perfect case study for Anna’s dissertation, and one she simply cannot pass up. But as her initial fascination with Freddy Langley and his notebooks blooms into zealous obsession, Anna finds herself falling irrevocably into the criminal machinations of his sole living heir.
This taut, hilarious, and hugely intelligent novel is a many-layered labyrinth of possible truths that reveals at each turn the great danger of interpreting another person’s intentions, literary or otherwise. As Kirkus puts it, “Anna is embroiled in a game of literary detection that’s spurred, like all good detective stories, by a combination of curiosity, lust, and petty revenge.” In TALENT,Lapidos has crafted a deftly told mystery and a probing examination of the human mind and its fickle ways, all in the unsuspecting guise of a classic campus novel.
About Juliet Lapidos
Juliet Lapidos is a senior editor at the Atlantic. Previously, she was editor of the op-ed page at the Los Angeles Times, an opinion editor at the New York Times, and culture editor at Slate. Image credit Lauren Pisano.