John D. Davidson

The Trouble With Novels
That Bring the News

Essay: Jonathan Franzen and fiction as social commentary

Jonathan FranzenTo no one’s surprise, Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity, was published this fall to critical acclaim and commercial success. Like his last two novels, Purity features a dysfunctional family. A young woman, Purity “Pip” Tyler, saddled with $130,000 in student debt and a reclusive, emotionally dependent mother, is trying to discover the identity of her father, whom she hopes will help her out. It’s more complicated than that, of course. The novel actually features three dysfunctional families whose fates are implausibly intertwined. Franzen’s tale, as you might expect, is freighted with social commentary.

A Culture Warrior Contemplates Defeat

Review: Mario Vargas Llosa, ‘Notes on the Death of Culture’

Mario Vargas LlosaIn his 1948 essay, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, T.S. Eliot argued that the highest levels of culture are only attainable by relatively small groups of people, and that in order for a civilization to sustain high culture a class system of some kind is necessary. Because culture is transmitted primarily through the family and religion—not schools—and because it relies to a large extent on these particular loyalties for its perpetuation, when these institutions fail, “we must expect our culture to deteriorate.”

Tolkien, Lewis, and a World Shot through with Meaning

Review: Philip and Carol Zaleski, ‘The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings’

J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. LewisThere are those whose love for J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis is so fervent that no amount of detail about these writers is too much. These are the people who read and re-read not just Tolkien’s ring trilogy but also The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales; not just Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia but also his science fiction novels and letters and lectures and maybe even his 1936 scholarly work, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition.

Dada Land

Review: Philipp Blom, ‘Fracture: Life and Culture in the West: 1918-1938’

Perhaps no poem captures the cultural and spiritual crisis facing the West in the aftermath of World War I better than “The Second Coming.” Although it is often tossed around thoughtlessly in modern pop culture, Yeats’s short poem evokes not only the anxiety of modernity—“the falcon cannot hear the falconer / Things fall apart”—but also the sense that something terrible and inevitable is emerging.