Yesterday I mentioned the recent novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein (and some of its reviews) as an example of a recent contribution to the academic satire genre. In fact, with its long discourses on faith and religious principles, the book attempts to be more than a satire. Although I enjoyed many aspects of the book, ultimately I found it annoying because of its heavy-handed caricatures and self-conscious cleverness.
Also, although it is a novel containing many strange and unlikable characters, the intelligent female characters in the book are particularly unpleasant. There is a beautiful and brilliant female superstar professor character who excels at "fanging" her intellectual opponents, but she is widely loathed, loses her faculty position at Princeton because she gets an outside offer at an inferior institution (an entirely unbelievable scenario), and ultimately reveals herself to be insecure and petty, leaving the man who loves her (coincidentally, the "boyish" hero of the novel) because he gets an offer from Harvard. Explaining why she is leaving, she says:
..the fact that you have acquired more prestige than I have, when my work is so much more important, is not something I can tolerate. I can't degrade myself by being regarded as your female companion, the pretty young woman at the inferior institution who will be patronized by the Harvard elite. To be with you is to have everything that is wrong with academia constantly rubbed in my face.
And off she goes. Is it refreshing that a woman refuses to be the 'trailing' spouse (or significant other) or disturbing that she is so insecure she can't be in a relationship with someone at a "better" university? In fact, the smart female characters (all ex-wives or ex-girlfriends of the boyishly charming main character who, as it turns out, finds fame and success without even trying) are all deeply unlikeable, self-absorbed, and eccentric. The ultra-thin French poetess doesn't fare much better than the insecure vampire professor (i.e., the one who "fangs" people), and the self-absorbed anthropologist, albeit a bit more likable, is extremely bizarre (after retiring from Berkeley -- code for weird, I suppose -- her new research goal is to achieve immortality).
I concluded that a main theme of the book is that if we try too hard to be successful as intellectuals, we will lose, and we will deserve to lose because we will have destroyed other people to further our own success. Furthermore, those who try too hard to be successful in academia may do so by being aggressive back-stabbers and/or control freaks. It's better to drift along, feeling confused much of the time, because then somehow, without really trying, we may end up with fame, money, and a faculty position at Harvard! What a strange book: an anti-intellectual novel that shows off the intellect of the author.
9 months ago