Smallwood is a shrewd cultural critic ... and her writing about the academic world during the 'decadent twilight of the profession' has the ring of truth. Smallwood’s references to Kafka and Kant and Thomas Mann never feel like intellectual preening ... there isn’t a moment when Smallwood feels bogged down, by grad-school cogitation or anything else ... Smallwood’s novel is a good argument for judging a book by the sole (but high) standard of the liveliness and incisiveness of its prose. The book’s premise is not ingenious. The mechanics of its plot are not particularly important. (Things even sag a bit when Dorothy lands at an academic conference in Las Vegas and moves through the city and her human interactions there in a more conventional storylike way.) Its treatment of reproductive desires, ambivalences and disappointments is bold but hardly revolutionary in 2021. But Smallwood, on the evidence of this one book—and one can only eagerly await more—is a delightfully stylish rambler; a conjurer of a heightened, carefully choreographed version of consciousness. Reading her is like watching an accomplished figure skater doing a freestyle routine. You’re never less than confident in the performance, and often dazzled.
Consider Dorothy, the protagonist of Christine Smallwood’s jewel of a début novel ... Like many of the people who will love this novel, Dorothy is either tremendously depressed and dysfunctional or completely ordinary and doing pretty well ... Smallwood generates a bounty of humor from the chasm between the kind of things Dorothy thinks...and the kinds of things she does ... Smallwood begins a sentence by writing, 'I am not saying that the scholarly critical endeavor is a futile one, necessarily.' This sentiment, extremely funny in [the] context [of Smallwood's dissertation], is applied to even sharper effect in the novel, where scholarly critical endeavor is both Dorothy’s primary approach to understanding the world and the process by which she constantly dissociates from it ... Smallwood’s casually agonized and abundantly satisfying novel...provides the exact sort of thrill that can be found only through obsessive overthinking. Why live in the moment when you can dissect it like this?
The Life of the Mind is about endings that dribble to a close, the inexorable erosion of dreams, the slow leak of youthful buoyancy. It's about being young-ish at a time in history when it feels like many things might be fading away, including the natural world. The great accomplishment of Smallwood's taut novel is that while it is, indeed, about all those grim subjects, it's also one of the wittiest, most deliciously farcical novels I've read in a long time.