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Who Was His Little Brother, and Why Was He Killed?

BEN WESTHOFF VOLUNTEERED with Big Brothers Big Sisters in St. Louis. First compelled by a mix of privilege, rebellion, conscience, and adventure, he grew close to his assigned little brother. But 11 years after they met, Jorell Cleveland was fatally shot, and Westhoff resolved to find out who killed him. Then the true mystery began: Westhoff quickly...

Sophomoric Sophomores: On Elif Batuman’s “Either/Or”

WHEN WE NEXT ENCOUNTER Selin Karadaǧ, the protagonist first brought to life in Elif Batuman’s 2017 novel, The Idiot, she has just returned from Hungary where she had gone to improve her nascent language skills. It is the summer after her freshman year at Harvard, a year spent navigating what it means to leave home for the first time, deciphering weird...

In the Tongue a Knife, in the Knife a Tongue: On Fernanda Melchor’s “Paradais”

THERE IS MUCH in the literary culture of the United States that might be called unusual or disconcerting. Consider, for instance, the form of praise I have come to think of as “the inquisitor’s blurb.” This is when critics, readers, friends, and former teachers praise a book with the sort of language more typically found on warning labels and in accident...

Remedial Humanities: On Roosevelt Montás’s “Rescuing Socrates”

MY FIRST COLLEGE CLASS at the University of the Américas Puebla in Puebla, Mexico, in 1997 was a “great books” course. Bureaucratically entitled “Modelos Literarios I: Épica,” the class was not taught by an expert on the subject but by a scholar of colonial Mexican literature. The list of books was ambitious: the Iliad and the Odyssey (which I had providentially...

Surviving Destruction: What Keeps Going in Eugenie Brinkema’s “Life-Destroying Diagrams”

EUGENIE BRINKEMA’S Life-Destroying Diagrams is a full-throttle elucidation of radical formalism. A critical method whose close attention to form upends aesthetic theory, the “radical” in radical formalism does not signal allegiance to radical politics; rather, as Brinkema put it in her first book, The Forms of the Affects (Duke University Press, 2014),...

The Internet Is a Crime Against Humanity

TALKING SPONGES, spelling snails, dogs whose howls can be triggered from 1,000 miles away — these are but a few of the many historical examples upon which Justin E. H. Smith draws to illustrate the persistence of the telecommunicative imaginary throughout human history. Working in the same vein of scholarship as Ian Hacking’s “historical ontology,”...

You Must Change Your Writing Style: Ward Farnsworth’s Guidebooks to English Virtuosity and Ancient Philosophy

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, The New York Times Book Review put out a call for readers’ favorite literary sentences of the past quarter-century, intending to print a pageful of the best examples. This was meant to correct the “blind spot” of the then-new edition of the Yale Book of Quotations (2006), with its seemingly inexplicable dearth of contributions from...

The Hijacked Christianity: A Conversation with Obery M. Hendricks Jr.

OBERY M. HENDRICKS JR. is angry at white evangelicals — not all of them, perhaps, but certainly the strong majority of those now associated with right-wing politics in the United States. It’s not just that these religious-political actors have disagreements with their more liberal brothers and sisters; it’s that they have abdicated the Christian tradition...

Lines, Lineage, and Light in Jazmina Barrera’s “Linea Nigra”

THERE’S A CONCEPT in landscape architecture, a friend once told me, called a “desire line.” Picture a grassy quad on a college campus, neatly framed by flat gray sidewalks. Some walk along the cement, as the designers intended. But the preferred path can be seen from above; it cuts across the field, worn in from years of straying foot traffic. Reading...

Violent Acts of Alien Intelligences: On Cixin Liu’s “The Three-Body Problem” and Mark Bould’s Climate Criticism

IS IT POSSIBLE to detect traces of the Anthropocene in fiction similar to the way one can observe it in the layers of the Earth’s crust or the rings of trees? The term, proposed two decades ago to signal how humanity has become the distinctive shaper of Earth’s ecosystem, suggests we would discover ourselves as a new kind of collective force. But while...

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