But do the Theory-trained characters of novels like The Corrections, The Ask, or The Marriage Plot possess anything close to the demonic energy of a nihilist like Bazarov? You can imagine them talking to Bazarov—even agreeing with him most of the time—but by comparison they seem harmless, at the mercy of the world Theory has equipped them to deconstruct. Temperamentally they seem closer to Tolstoy’s kind-hearted searchers; Theory is for them like Freemasonry for Pierre Bezukhov, a seductive phase of education that is finally too cultish and self-enclosed to make sense of the world’s upheavals. Or perhaps it’s more like homosexuality in Evelyn Waugh: a maturational phase that has to be abandoned in order to take one’s place in the social order. (The Ask’s Milo, again, on his college education: “I learned about late capitalism. And how to snort heroin.” To which his interlocutor, a streetwise and profane older lawyer, says: “Did they teach you anything about being a man while you were learning about late capitalism, whatever the fuck that is?”) Does Theory threaten to break apart the norms of the realist world, or do we just need to wait for these characters to outgrow their reading?

Nicholas Dames, “The Theory Generation”