31 January 2009

James Hynes, The Lecturer’s Tale. New York: Picador, 2001.

A literary work, Nelson Humbolt’s doctoral advisor said, is any imaginative writing that is inherently more interesting than anything that could be said about it, and The Lecturer’s Tale qualifies. The torments of academic life--departmental infighting, the struggle for tenure, and the like--have been well documented in American fiction, particularly by Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Jane Smiley’s Moo. Yes, academics offer an easy target for satire--the leisurely life of learning inspires envy; the disheveled forgetfulness, disdain. In truth, however, this world is highly competitive, even combative. James Hynes's The Lecturer’s Tale is a joyfully bleak look at the life of Humbolt, a mediocre literary scholar, as he falls from post-doctoral stardom at an elite public university to adjunct composition instructor, then, magically, finds his way not only to tenure, but the department chair--only to learn, in the end, that cash is better than tenure.

The story relies completely on our suspension of disbelief: an accident on the quad leave Humbot with an ability to bend others to his will, one of his colleagues is a vampire, and an alien shows up briefly at the end. Nonetheless, it captures well the atmosphere of academia--a place where, as the vampire tells, Humbolt, “Gender as subversive parodic performance doesn’t work if you don’t tell anyone”--and such a statement is clearly understood. A place where a job candidate’s lecture on the symbolism of a non-existent Elvis movie is considered genius, never mind that the movie is only in his head. This wordsmithing is a sort of magic; Hynes simply asks us to accept a bit more. This is easy enough until part three, the denouement.

In the final section, however, Hynes goes overboard. All loose ends are tied off, but in such a fantastical way as to defy even the most gracious sense of credulity. While the final results are appropriately satisfying, the alien and the vampire--which might have worked, as manifestations of Humbolt’s delusions--are instead played as real, rather than metaphorical, thus inserting an element of unreality that is out of place with Hyne’s otherwise brilliant display of departmental dysfunction. This is a highly literate book, featuring literature and literary theory as much as the characters. Tightly plotted, with elegant prose and lively dialogue, it is sure to appeal to all post-graduate literary scholars. The rest of us might get a few good laughs from it, too.