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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Another novel about college freshmen - will this one be original?

Elif Batuman, a NYer staff writer, holds the fiction place in the current New Yorker, keeping up a string of author debuts, w/ a piece called Constructed Worlds. I'm deliberately not calling this a story, as it seems to be a selection from her forthcoming debut novel - at least it has none of the hallmarks of a story, not even attempting to create a narrative arc or to have any point of tension, development, crisis, or resolution. So taking this piece as it is - a scene-setter, a sketch - your interest in Constructed Worlds will entirely depend on your tolerance for (another) piece of fiction about college years; this piece is about the first days and, to a lesser extent, the first semester at not just any college but Harvard, where the narrator, a Turkish-American, arrives and finds herself in probably the only place in the world where 17-year-olds can talk readily with one another about whether Einstein's genius is over-rated. To a degree this is yet another academic satire; the freshmen courses are so weird and obscure and the professors such narcissists, and the kids so privileged (sorry I'll have to miss next week's seminar because I'll be in Davos - or something like that) that you begin to think this is ridiculous, it's way over the top - and then you realize, no, it probably isn't, it's probably pretty accurate: One prof insists that the students go into various museums (at least Harvard museums) and "demand" to see the works that the museum keeps hidden in storage. Talk about radical action! Another reads aloud various passages from great novels in the original French and Russian to show the students how bad the translations - and they get it (I guess). This piece of fiction reaches its climax when the narrator creates her "constructed world" for one of the art classes - re-creating a hotel her family once stayed in (in Mexico, I think?) - and - OK, so what? This fiction excerpt shows Batuman has a sharp wit and an eye for detail and ton of intelligence; does she know how to use the skills to "construct" an original world of fiction?

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