March 03, 2004

Academic Novels

[UPDATE: Fact-checked the Barbara Pym descriptions, and (hereby) noted Henry Farrell's quote: "Iíve always much preferred grumpy, splenetic conservative Amis pere when he was on form to slightly-too-clever-for-his-own-good Amis fils." Dead on.]

This CT thread has turned into a discussion of campus fiction. I haven't read Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution, but I will fix that soon.

Anyhow: Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim is gutwrenchingly funny (if I ever get tenure, I will try to publish a paper beginning "In considering this strangely neglected topic"). I'm quite fond of Barbara Pym's Less than Angels, which as the title suggests takes a gentler view of academic follies than many books in this genre. The opening scene is classic: The official opening of a library is forced to observe the students and scruffy academics working in it, with the students huddling by the refreshments, wisecracking about the faculty, and eventually blowing off work to drop by a friend's. You may not think of Pym as a virtuoso stylist, but she's a master at handling point of view here (and in many other works--read the first page of An Unsuitable Attachment, and watch how smoothly the camera glides from Stonebird to Sophia and Penelope).

[God, I love writing sentences like that. Books sound so interesting when you enigmatically refer to the characters without hinting who they are.]

James Lasdun's The Horned Man is a tremendous novel with an academic setting--full of pity and terror. Its only flaw is the satire of sexual-harassment policies--Lasdun himself has the narrator acknowledge that he's a much-parodied type. But its power comes from its remorseless exploration of how someone who tries to set up failsafe rules for living can destroy himself and those around him.

(On the subject of complainst about good books: I just read Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon--the last 600 pages in more or less one gulp, which should be enough review--and was mildly irked by the satire of pomo academics, which was pretty phoned-in I thought. But it's impossible to stop reading, and said satire occupies less than 5% of it.)

Henry calls David Lodge "a talented light novelist," but I think the light novel deserves the same respect as other genres. Small World is a brilliant farce, and making you fall off your seat laughing is a noble service for literature to perform. Nice Work I also like--at times it makes literary theory seem sexy and sensible--but the first volume of the trilogy, Changing Places, isn't as good. One complaint: It doesn't earn its ambiguous ending. A novel can gain depth and resonance by refusing to settle a crucial question, but in CP you know there's an answer that the author's simply not disclosing.

Posted by Matt Weiner at March 3, 2004 06:45 PM
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