PERSONAL: Born in London, England; son of Samir and Eileen (a teacher) Murr. Education: Attended Stanford University; Syracuse University, M.A.
CAREER: Stanford University, Stanford, CA, teaching assistant, 1993; Pembroke College, Oxford, England, creative writing teacher, 1995; University of Houston, Houston, TX, fiction instructor, 1996-97; freelance writer, 1997—. Writer in residence, Lynchburg College, 1998; visiting professor of creative writing, Northwestern University.
AWARDS, HONORS: Award for Best Story, Gettysburg Review, 1993, for "Benjamin," and 1995, for "The Writer"; Margaret Bridgman Fellow in Fiction, 2003; Stegner fellowship and Scowcroft fellowship, both Stanford University; Raymond Carver prize for poetry; New York Times Notable Book, for The Boy.
The Boy (novel), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1998.
The Genius of the Sea, Free Press (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor of stories and novellas to literary journals. The Boy has been translated into six languages.
WORK IN PROGRESS: The King of Infinite Space.
SIDELIGHTS: Poet and fiction writer Naeem Murr achieved critical acclaim for his first novel, 1998's The Boy. The novel recounts social worker Sean Hennessey's search through the London underworld for his lost foster son, Durward, an orphan who Sean believes may be his natural son. The boy has proved to be emotionally disturbed, manifesting several different personalities during his stay with the Hennesseys. After wreaking havoc in Sean's family, Durward runs away, disappearing into London's mean streets. Parallel to the narrative of Sean's search is the story of Theresa, a former nun who runs the orphanage where Durward once lived and who sees the boy as a kind of Messiah figure. At the same time, however, other narrative strands show the demonic side of the boy, who destroys Sean's family and prompts the "fat man" who adores him toward evil actions.
Many reviewers praised Murr's ability to evoke a nightmarish world in which good and evil exist in constant conflict. For example, Reba Leiding, writing in Library Journal, praised Murr's "rich, literary style." Hans Johnson, in the Washington Post Book World, wrote that "Murr traffics in images so capably that the novel's space becomes a kind of magnetic field, alluring, almost confining." And in the New York Times Book Review, novelist Margot Livesey admired Murr's ability to make Durward a fully believable character: "Much of the impact of The Boy depends on Murr's ability to make this beautiful, bisexual, charismatic Messiah-Satan credible, and to a large extent [Murr] does." Though Livesey found some of Durward's extraordinary behavior difficult to accept, she considered the character richly drawn and emotionally believable, concluding with high praise for "Murr's dark energy, his sharply intelligent prose, his genius for the unexpected, his keen sense of atmosphere."
At the same time, however, some critics who admired Murr's descriptive abilities faulted The Boy for exaggerated prose and dependence on cliché. A Publishers Weekly reviewer, for one, deemed the novel "overwrought," noting that the characters "seduce each other and explain themselves with operatic gusto: they seem to communicate in arias." In the Times Literary Supplement, critic Lesley McDowell observed that "for many reasons, The Boy is a disturbing novel, although perhaps not as disturbing as it should be." McDowell likened Murr's central theme, the erotic attraction of an older man to an innocent youth, to Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. Admiring the ambiguity with which The Boy opens, McDowell noted that the reader does "not know whether the boy is a con artist . . . or whether Hennessey is guilty of abusing the child put into his care." Yet as the narrative becomes more simplistic, wrote McDowell, the complex themes break down. "Possibilities that the boy is a projection of Hennessey's, that Hennessey may be presenting us with an untruthful account, fail to engage here in the way the novel might have seemed to suggest." McDowell concluded that "the novel's suggestion that the irresistibility of the boy is one with the irresistibility of evil is unexamined. And for so disturbing a subject, perhaps examination is needed more."
The grandiloquent prose that seeps into The Boy at times can also be found in Murr's second novel, The Genius of the Sea, in which social worker Daniel Mulvaugh finds solace from his wrecked life in the sea tales of an old man who is fraudulently accepting government checks. Amos Radcliff is living in the same flat where Mulvaugh grew up, and when the social worker visits Amos in an effort to expose him for taking welfare checks when he is not eligible for them, the location brings back strong memories and guilt over the things he never said to his mother and a childhood friend before they died. Mulvaugh is also plagued by guilt over his wife's nervous breakdown, feeling that he in some way caused it. But Amos's riveting tales of his younger days in the merchant marine, intertwined with a tragic tale of love and murder, sweep Mulvaugh away and threaten to drag him from the more painful, but more relevant realities of his life. Critics of The Genius of the Sea were especially impressed with Murr's blending of the stylized tales of the old sailor with the modern drama of Mulvaugh's personal dilemmas. "Murr draws the reader in with natural storytelling ability and uses great literary style to perfect the atmosphere," wrote Jeanine K. Raghunathan in Library Journal, while a Kirkus Reviews contributor said the novel "is full to bursting with ripe, powerful imagery, and he has an almost uncanny sense for the mechanics of group conversation." Although a Publishers Weekly writer felt that the character of Daniel was not fully drawn, the reviewer concluded that the novel is "a queer, mesmerizing hybrid of a book . . . [and a] notable, highly original work."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Houston Chronicle, August 23, 1998, Fritz Lanham, "Fostering a Mystery," p. 10.
Kirkus Reviews, March 14, 1998, review of The Boy, p. 359; April 1, 2003, review of The Genius of the Sea, p. 500.
Library Journal, April 1, 1998, Reba Leiding, review of The Boy, p. 124; May 1, 2003, Jeanine K. Raghunathan, review of The Genius of the Sea, p. 156.
New York Times Book Review, July 19, 1998, Margot Livesey, review of The Boy, p. 13.
Publishers Weekly, April 6, 1998, review of The Boy, p. 58; April 28, 2003, review of The Genius of the Sea, p. 43.
Times Literary Supplement, April 17, 1998, Lesley McDowell, review of The Boy.
Washington Post Book World, June 7, 1998, Hans Johnson, review of The Boy, p. X5.*