There’s a whiff of inside baseball about this novel: From the world of reading and writing about writing comes a story about reading and writing about writing, in which a writer writes about a writer writing about inspiration, who, fumbling for inspiration herself, stumbles upon a writer whose inspiration seems to have failed him after a promising start.
The narrator of “Talent” is Anna Brisker, a seventh-year graduate student in English at Collegiate University in New Harbor, a school clearly modeled on Yale. “Any student of narrative,” she tells us, “would agree that my life had been leading up to a brilliant dissertation and a secure position in a top-notch university.”
Life, however, doesn’t adhere to theories of narrative, and Anna is stuck — so stuck, in fact, that her adviser steers her to an upcoming “lecture on efficiency and workflow techniques” soon to be delivered by a “life-hacking expert.”
That has to hurt. It also affords author Juliet Lapidos, in the guise of Anna, the opportunity to skewer the dispensing of life-hacking tips — and to wonder why, if the speaker is so dead set on efficiency, he says “utilize” instead of “use.” The waste!
Although this might seem like a detour, it actually dovetails nicely with the larger story, which turns out to be about the value of spent time — or, really, the art of doing nothing. The writer Anna fixes on, upon discovering through a series of coincidences that the notebooks from his fallow period are ensconced in the Collegiate archives, turns out to have dedicated his supposedly silent years to crafting a writerly defense of not writing.
This, really, is the story within Anna’s story, which becomes the tale of a sort of literary heist, as Anna, in cahoots with the writer’s sister and putative literary heir, sets out to get those notebooks. Thus she might right a familial/literary wrong, and at the same time secure critical material for her ever more inspired, and ever more unlikely, dissertation.
Lapidos includes much of the elusive writer’s notebooks in her novel where — mostly sketchy and insipid — they seem to signal Anna’s desperation or delusion. But in their celebration of the unsaid and the undone they also offer Anna cover. “Some lifetimes are meant for doing nothing,” one note reads. “Nothing: the antidote to boredom. Nothing: the only pure pleasure. A perfect day for nothing, no one seems to say.”
And just so, Anna, looking at the void, observes: “The pointlessness of my New Harbor existence, once a dereliction of duty, was finally pure. I did nothing and now I wasn’t supposed to do anything. … There was nothing wrong with nothing, for a while, at least, was there?”
By: Juliet Lapidos.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 241 pages, $27.