Vladimir Nobokov’s Lolita is one of the most beloved and most maligned novels ever written. Is it a work of literary genius or unrepentant smut? A madman’s confession or a justification for pedophilia? A sendup of American provincialism or a shocking depiction of the dark human soul? It could—and has—been argued that it is all these things. The heated dialogue that began when the book roared onto bestseller lists more than 60 years ago continues to burn today, deepening the conundrum of the book, the girl and the dangerously charming protagonist, Humbert Humbert.
Publisher Walter Minton introduced Lolita to a wide readership when he released the book in America in 1958. Minton took his knocks for this bold decision, but he also made a fortune from it. His daughter Jenny Minton Quigley was born long after Lolita’s splashy arrival, but she still grew up under its shadow, with some ambivalence. Now an editor herself, she recently found herself contemplating the book’s place in our more socially conscious age, marked in particular by the #MeToo movement. And so Quigley assembled Lolita in the Afterlife, an engrossing collection of smart and thoughtful essays by an array of contemporary writers reckoning with this indelible and shocking novel.
The contributors, mostly women but with a handful of men as well, hold up Lolita like a prism, examining it in different lights and from a range of angles. Tapping her own conflicted reaction to the novel, Roxane Gay examines whether there are boundaries she and her fellow writers should not cross, while Susan Choi and Bindu Bansinath connect their own intimate adolescent sexual experiences to the text. Biographer Stacy Schiff and literary historian Sarah Weinman offer some fascinating historical context, and screenwriter Tom Bissell watches film adaptations of the novel with fresh eyes. Novelists Andre Dubus III and Jim Shepard (who, incidentally, taught Lolita to Quigley in college) provide 21st-century male perspectives, while Alexander Chee juxtaposes Lolita’s story against his own sexual coming-of-age as a gay man.
A number of books about Nabokov and Lolita have been published in the last few years, but Lolita in the Afterlife seems to be the first to wholly reassess the work’s legacy as our society grapples with the harm caused by white male privilege and the age-old propensity to look the other way. All tallied, the book’s 30 essays (as well as Quigley’s own incisive introduction) are, by necessity, contradictory, bracing, uncomfortable, thought provoking, informative, entertaining and, in the end, inconclusive—not unlike Lolita itself. Perhaps Lauren Groff says it best in her essay “Delectatio Morosa” when she calls Nabokov’s troublesome masterpiece “a paradox . . . unparalleled as a profane and dirty and gorgeous mirror of America.”