A Booker Prize–shortlisted author chronicles the lives of graduate students at a Midwestern university.
There’s a perverse energy to writing workshops. The ostensible goal is for writers to help each other improve their writing by critiquing it, but what everybody in the room—aside, maybe, from the presiding genius—wants is affirmation. Taylor captures this tension wonderfully in the opening scenes of his new novel. The central figure here is Seamus, a poet who not only refuses to praise “personal history transmuted into a system of vague gestures toward greater works,” but also dares to reveal his honest evaluation of another poet’s work. In addition to writing poetry, Seamus cooks for hospice patients. He’s an interesting character, and even readers who think he’s a jerk—an easily defended assessment—are almost certainly going to care about what he does and what happens to him. The opening chapter—Seamus’ story—could stand alone as a piece of short fiction, but the same is not true of what follows. In the next chapter, Taylor follows Fyodor and begins to introduce more characters than a reader can reasonably be expected to get invested in or even remember. The characters begin to lose specificity. Noah is a dancer, as is Fatima. Ivan was a dancer, but now he’s studying finance and making money via something that looks like OnlyFans. Fyodor works in a slaughterhouse, and his partner is a vegetarian. But Taylor only intermittently gives these characters and their situations the same attention he gave Seamus, and there are characters swirling around the periphery who barely register but require keeping track of. Complicated and unhappy relationships and sex that seems more like a reflex than a choice are the main motifs throughout much of the novel. Some readers might see the introduction of a new point-of-view character on Page 231 as a fresh start. Other readers might just give up.
Lots of characters. Not a lot of depth.