Sunday, September 05, 2004

The Lecturer's Tale

Now and then I can't resist reading an academic novel, so this weekend I read James Hynes' The Lecturer's Tale. I'd read one of Hynes' books earlier, one called Publish and Perish, which I enjoyed quite a bit, so I was pretty sure I'd like this one, too.

I did, especially for the first 200 or so pages, but after that its delights began to pall a little. And why is it that so many novels by "literary" guys like this have to end in some version of the apocalypse? I can think of a lot of other instances, but I'm not going into them here.

But, as usual, I digress. The novel is about Nelson Humbolt, an adjunct lecturer in the English Department at the University of the Midwest. It's a perilous life, and Nelson is fired. His publications aren't up to par, and his mentor in the department has deserted him.

Minutes later, while the tower clock is striking thirteen, Nelson loses his middle finger in a freak accident. When it's reattached, he discovers that he can make people do whatever he wants by touching them with it. He sets out to do good. Well, we all know where that leads.

Part of my problem with the latter part of this book is that I found myself in sympathy with some of Nelson's goals, and with the goals of his mentor, whose name is Weissmann, in the batte of the theorists vs. the people who just love literature and support "the canon." But neither Nelson nor Weissmann is a particularly admirable character, especially not by this point in the book. Nelson has let his rage nearly overcome his original good intentions. Or maybe entirely overcome them.

Lots of good names in the book, including my favorite, Lester Antilles. And lots of wonderful satire of academic types. Antilles is a good example. He "refused on principle to participate in the marginalization of indigenous voices or to be come complicit with the hegemonic discourse of Western postcolonial cultural imperialism. In practice, this meant that for six years he refused to take classes, attend seminars, or write a dissertation. As a result of this ideologically engaged nonparticipation, he was offered tenured positions even before he had his Ph.D. . . ."

The book is full of great stuff like that, and I found myself laughing out loud more than once because it's all too familiar.

So I'm willing to forgive the apocalypse. This is a funny, well-written book. Any English major will love it.

I have Hynes' first novel, The Wild Colonial Boy on hand to read, along with his most recent, Kings of Infinite Space. I'm sure I need to space them out a good bit, but I'll get to them eventually.

1 comment:

Vince said...

My experience with Hynes is limited to The Wild Colonial Boy, but I can recommend it heartily. It's a marvelous book about an American student who gets involved with the Troubles in Northern Ireland. One of the best novels I've read on the subject.