... these brief, mesmeric reports describe a kind of spiritual topography every bit as rich and enigmatic as [Murnane's] celebrated fictions ... Reading his self-appraisals in Last Letter to a Reader resembles a kind of overhearing, as when we listen to a figure on a stage reveal some contrary stance or enigmatic conviction. For a book meant to represent “a neat rounding-off” to his career, these are at times almost hermetically private documents. The reader can feel intrusive, as if invading private territory. But to follow Murnane into his own conflicted understanding of composition is a serious pleasure ... Here, then, is the primary draw of the book: to read a writer who has thought deeply about his fiction try to decipher its meaning alongside its mechanics ... Murnane writes with scrupulous lucidity, though there is a chimeric quality to these 15 reports ... Murnane can be cantankerous and is often something of a pedant.
... gives us the lifetime of Murnane’s writing ... It is not his finest work, any more than Le Temps Retrouvé is Proust’s. But it is a necessary work—the only possible conclusion to his life, or to the version of it that he has entrusted to his writing. It insists that we hear in its narrator’s voice the culmination of a whole life, a complete life of thought, freed from the painful frailty of the body that has housed it. One now believes Murnane when he claims that this must really and truly be his last book ... The book’s avowed project, the man judging his past selves, turns out to be a red herring, a very Murnanian joke. There is no embarrassment, no recrimination, no notes given or taken. There is only the extraordinary effort made to retrieve an irretrievable entity.
The title of this, supposedly final book, suggests a theoretical distance. Perhaps, some critical discourse about Murnane’s body of work. And yes, there is that. But far more satisfying is when he wanders off chasing his own thoughts, tracing the path of his ‘constellation of ideas’ onto the page ... Despite some challenging linguistic references, unfortunate use of an early pejorative term and a fearsome summation on note keeping, Last Letter to a Reader offers the gift of quiet and instructive encouragement to other authors.
The essays in Last Letter are neither literary criticism nor memoir. They ruminate instead on unexpected connections between books, ideas and the specific life experiences that informed his writing ... Though Last Letter is meant to be a final book, it is often more cantankerous than elegiac. Murnane, at various points, expresses his dislike of scholarly literary criticism, book reviewers, philosophy, neuroscience, cameras, publishers, the way we talk about characters as if they were actual people, and readers’ tendency to conflate their memories of reading a book with the book itself ... This book will similarly be most meaningful to dedicated readers who have already made their way through his other works. Last Letter to a Reader might best be seen as Murnane’s complex and often ironic attempt to have a say about the meaning of his books before other critics inevitably do.