The Lecturere's Tale by James Hynes

Entirely by coincidence, I seem to have read a whole lot of books set at a college or university in recent months (Perrotta's Joe College, Stephenson's The Big U and James Hynes's The Lecturer's Tale (the subject of the current review)). General comments on the whole set may follow elsewhere, but for now, I'll focus on the latest of these.

The Lecturer's Tale is a book for anyone who's had contact with a college English department without actually becoming a postmodern literary theorist. The book describes the antics of the diverse and demented faculty at the prestigious and fictitious Midewst University in Minnesota, and gleefully mocks, spoofs, trashes, drags through the mud, and jumps up and down on the battered corpse of currently fashionable literary theory.

The book has gotten favorable to glowing reviews in a number of mainstream publications, and is being marketed as mainstream fiction. IgnorE that-- in reality, it's a work of SF. It's on the dark side of fantasy, true (and definitely an R-rated book), but not so dark as to merit the "horror" label sometimes attached to it in reviews. And it's definitely fantasy.

The sad-sack protagonist of the book is Nelson Humboldt, once a promising young postdoc in the English department, but now fallen to the lowly level of lecturer and composition teacher, and, at the start of the book, about to join the ranks of the unemployed. Shortly after his firing from the department, though, he loses his right index finger in a freak accident. When the finger is reattached, he discovers that he has the power to force others to do his bidding, simply by touching them with the finger. Though he tries to use his newfound power for good, he finds himself sorely tempted, and soon begins a new rise through the ranks of the English faculty.

And what eccentric ranks they are. The department is one of the most prestigious in the nation, filled with the shining stars of literary theory, all madder than a sack full of hatters. Among the eccentric characters are the vaguely vampirish Victoria Victorinix, a professionally Irish poet who refers to himself as "The Coogan," the mousy and nearly asexual Vita Deonne (Nelson's officemate and the only member of the department still speaking to him when the book opens) whose papers on sexuality in fiction ("The Lesbian Phallus of Dorian Gray") explore every imaginable perversion despite her own sexlessness, and the wannabe mafioso department chair, Anthony Pescecane, described by the author as a cross between Elaine Showalter and Tony Soprano, whose latest work puts forth the literary theory of "Street Cred."

From the very first sentence ("Crossing the Quad on a Halloween Friday, as the clock in the library tower tolled thirteen under a windy, dramatic sky, Nelson Humboldt lost his right index finger in a freak accident.") to the very last ("'Chapter one,' said Nelson Humboldt. 'I am born.'"), the book is chock-full of lightly tossed off literary references and in-jokes. These are never really intrusive enough to distract, and the ones I was able to catch were all pretty amusing. And anything you might lose in missing the literary jokes is more than made up for by the preposterously over-the-top parodies of academic theory. Such as the key publication of Penelope O, the Hugh M. Hefner Chair in Sexuality Studies:

"...Reading with My Pussy: I Gang-Bang the Canon, which featured her fantasies of sex with famous canonical authors-- adopting the missionary position with Rudyard Kipling, enjoying mutual cunnilingus with Virginia Woolf, letting Plato do her doggy style like a boy. As a result, all over North America, young academics were doing 'pussy readings' of canonical authors, dragging hapless dead authors into increasingly elaborate fantasies: fisting Henry James; Emily Dickinson in leather; and three-ways between W. H. Auden, Ernest Hemingway, and Edna St. Vincent Millay."

As Nelson begins to exploit his newfound power to impose his will on the department, the tightly wound faculty begins to unravel. Things start slowly, but quickly pick up steam, moving faster and faster on their way toward a firey end. One by one, the members of the department are brought low by poetic justice (in the unassuming form of Nelson Humboldt), and Nelson climbs his way toward the chairmanship-- excuse me, chairpersonship-- and his own doom.

The book isn't nearly as bitter as that summary makes it sound, though. Various trendy schools of criticism come in for vicious mockery, but it's always funny, and the tone stays fairly light most of the way through. The plot never gets away from the author, not even when Nelson finds himself duelling a Serbian swordsman in the library, and he keeps it moving quickly enough that some fairly nasty stuff passes while you're laughing at the deconstruction of the English faculty. This is what, in my not so humble opinion, keeps it from really qualifying as horror- while it the "be careful what you wish for" plot and a few of the classic horror elements, it never dwells on the bad consequences, and despite the closing pyrotechnics, almost every character leaves the story in a better state than they entered it.

This book is highly recommended, even for those who have had only passing contact with the insane arcana of modern literary theory. The plotting is tight, the satire is biting, and the writing is superb. If you cracked a smile at any of the excerpts or descriptions above, buy this and read it at once.

Last modified: 27 February, 2001