Sunday, October 11, 2009

James Hynes' The Lecturer's Tale

I read James Hynes' The Lecturer's Tale, which is a funny though sometimes truly bizarre novel centering on a fictional high-powered English department in Minnesota. Nelson Humboldt, the protagonist, has his finger severed in an accident just after being fired as an adjunct instructor. When it is reattached he finds he can make people do what he wants. As always happens with such stories, he then generates all sorts of unintended (and sometimes unpleasant) consequences.

Hynes deftly navigates all sorts of academic realities, from internal power struggles to the exploitation of non-tenured faculty. Since virtually all novels about academia are written by people from English departments, it explores the debate over postmodernism and "great works." This leads Hynes into areas like ideology, the nature of gender, relationships, and even the very purpose of universities (on that note, I found the ending very poignant, though the climactic scenes were pretty excessive).

A number of the characters are too over the top, like a Serbian professor who dressed in a different costume every day, from a cowboy to a Cub Scout, or the professor who is always asleep, whether in meetings or at a department party. But overall, even when caricatures, they symbolize the different types of personalities many departments have. And sometimes it's very funny, such as the guy whose job talk made up a movie that Elvis could have made, and since it exemplified the cultural aspects of Elvis so well, it should be regarded as actually existing.*

It left me wishing, though, that a novelist from a different discipline would examine academia, because all disciplines have factions of some sort (the most significant in political science revolves around qualitative versus quantitative methodology) and I am a little tired of reading about the same English ones all the time.

* for non-academics, a job talk is a lecture/talk about your research given during the course of a multi-day interview for a position as professor.


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