The Lecturer's Tale
by James Hynes
A review by C. P. Farley
Nelson Humbolt is the son of a frustrated high school English teacher. Humbolt Sr. reads to his infant son the literary works of the western canon, from Beowulf to Hemingway, hoping to instill in little Nelson a love of literature and the foundation for a more distinguished career.
In college, Nelson's promise is recognized by an idealistic Professor who also hopes to assuage unfulfilled aspirations through Nelson's future success. However, despite rigorous literary training, Nelson is not accepted into an Ivy League school, and is forced to settle for an institution of mediocre distinction. Never mind, Nelson's mentor tells him, "Scholarship is a meritocracy....A man's worth is judged by the quality of his work, not by the pedigree of his doctorate."
Yeah, right. It is, after all, the end of the twentieth century. Universities across the country are divided across ideological lines, and ideals like merit or honor will get an academic acolyte precisely nowhere. James Hynes makes his sympathies clear: "One generation of scholars fought a desperate rear-guard action on behalf of truth and beauty, and the next lacerated its own flesh on the thorny switches of French theory." Such blind trust in academic integrity is quaint, to be sure, but quite loopy. And few writers have made this point with more playful savagery than James Hynes in The Lecturer's Tale, which has just been released in paperback.
As the story opens, Nelson is fired from his position at University of the Midwest. He is now "a former visiting adjunct lecturer, on his way to failed academic." His crime? Failure to align himself with either side of the chasm that divides Midwest's English faculty. Politically, Nelson is an independent, which at Midwest spells academic death.
To make matters worse, shortly after being fired, Nelson loses a finger in a bizarre accident. But is this curse or blessing? After the finger is sewn back on, Nelson discovers that his reincarnated digit has been mysteriously enhanced. Like a modern day Midas, whoever Nelson touches with this transformed finger is compelled to follow his bidding. This may be a pretty silly plot device, but the series of events it sets in motion are lose-your-lunch hilarious.
At first, Nelson uses his supernatural gift unselfishly. He plans to use it to "walk comfortably among both princes and postmodernists, bringing them together with statesmanlike compassion." But soon enough, as these things go, he develops a taste for the power his finger affords and embraces the vice that animates the rest of the novel's cast of characters: ambition.
And what a cast of characters. To pick a few at random, there's power lesbian Victoria Victorinix, author of Daughters of the Night: Clitoral Hegemony in LeFanu's 'Carmilla'; Marko Kraljevic, "the short, dark, thick-set Serb, lycanthropically hirsute...who referred to himself as an intellectual samurai, the Toshiro Mifune of cultural studies;" the Canadian Lady Novelist who is "reputed to be like Margaret Atwood, only nicer;" department chair Anthony Pescecane, a Don Corleone wannabe who's found a niche in "the junkyard collage of post-modernism and its utter lack of moral and political content;" and many more.
When the novel was first published last year, Hynes raised a few eyebrows. Some members of the academic community saw the barbaric members of his fictional English department as thinly disguised caricatures of actual people. A little too thinly. The models for his extravagantly repellent characters were all but obvious to members of the community he lampooned so devastatingly. But as long as you are not the one being immortalized as a greedy, pretentious ass, then this is one of the most enjoyable academic satires this side of Lucky Jim.
Make no mistake. Besides being great fun, The Lecturer's Tale is at heart a serious, and worrisome, comment on both the present and future of higher education in America, and will likely enter the debate about the future of academics in America with both barrels cocked and loaded.
Admittedly, Hynes's novel is not without flaws. As the story descends into gothic absurdity, Hynes comes perilously close to losing control of his material. And his besieged-straight-white-male polemic is a bit of a stretch. But, criticism aside, the novel's wicked pleasures and shrewd insights make it one of the most worthwhile of the past year.