Thursday, March 24, 2011

Academic Novels - latest

Two books that I read recently are not academic novels sensu stricto, but contain academic characters: one whose academic career is central to the novel (Pym, by Mat Johnson) and one whose academic career is peripheral (The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, by Dinaw Mengestu).

I liked both books a lot, especially the first 43% of Pym, but there are some odd things about the depiction of academics and academia in these books. [In the case of Pym, which is perhaps the strangest book I have ever read, these odd things pale in comparison with the rest of the book, but I will mention them nevertheless.]

First the easy one: In The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, a professor of American history uses her sabbatical to live in an old house that she has had renovated (remarkably quickly and at great expense) in a gentrifying neighborhood in Washington DC. It's not exactly clear what she is doing with her sabbatical, but she mentions at one point that she used to love being a professor:

"And for a while, it was great," she said. "I loved it. The students, the summers off. I could pick [my daughter] up from school every day. And at night I still had the energy to go out for dinner or watch a movie."

Does that resonate with everyone? Is everyone looking forward to their summer off, not to mention those energy-filled evenings after a leisurely day of talking and whatever?

Anyway, that's not the point of the book, and that weird description of the relaxing life of a professor doesn't detract from the novel. At the other end of the spectrum, Pym deliberately warps its depictions of academics, and excels at it.

I read reviews of Pym before I read the book, and saw repeated the description of the main character, an African American professor, as someone who was denied tenure because he refused to serve on his college's diversity committee. I was prepared to dislike the book based on that; I was suspicious that the book might be a typical attack on academia, and in particular a crude attempt at parodying the stereotypical political correctness of certain parts of academia.

But: Perhaps because the academia part of the book is so funny, and perhaps because the rest of the book is so bizarre, I was, in fact, not annoyed when I actually read the book. The tenure denial turns out to be an important plot element, without which the professor's office would not have been cleaned out without his knowledge, his rare books placed on his porch to be ruined by rain, resulting in a financial settlement that allows the professor to head to Antarctica to meet a 200-year old man living in underground ice caves with large, white, furry, sadistic creatures. It's hard to make that plot transition work without invoking a faculty meeting or two, but Johnson does it in Pym.

I didn't like how the professor-character says that he didn't care how obscure his topic or how empty his classes, he was going to teach what he wanted anyway (though this is one reason for his tenure denial), and he does seem to have been hired as a diversity token (the President of the "historically white college" that denied him tenure tells him: "You were retained to purvey the minority perspective."), but there were quite a few things that I liked about the academic elements of Pym; such as the rather compelling first sentence:

"Always thought if I didn't get tenure I would shoot myself or strap a bomb to my chest and walk into the faculty cafeteria, but when it happened I just got bourbon drunk and cried a lot and rolled into a ball on my office floor."

I'm not a big fan of Edgar Allen Poe, books populated by large creepy creatures, senseless violence and/or Armageddon, but I highly recommend this book anyway.


Susan B. Anthony said...

Well, I just finished reading Solar and you were spot on with your review of that one: loathsome protagonist, cringe-inducing, rather misogynistic plot, unclear overall theme. But I do enjoy McEwan's writing and would have to echo your sentiment that although I disliked the book, I don't regret reading it.

So I'm inclined to trust your taste in academic novels. Pym sounds like fun -- I'll look for it.

Anonymous said...

A bunch of 200 year old large furry sadistic creatures gathered in an underground cave? Must be time for faculty meeting!

Lisa said...

Speaking of academic novels, I highly recommend "Straight Man" by Richard Russo. It's not an entirely positive depiction of academia either, but it's not unrealistic. And the story is great fun.

Anonymous said...

Let's rewrite that sentence, shall we?

"In the last stretch before submitting my tenure package, It is still great," he posted. "I love it. The 1000+ undergrads taught, the 3 PhDs graduated, the nearly 20 papers published, and NSF grant, the summers spent dedicated to intense full-time research, grant writing, and travel to conferences. I can pick up my daughter from daycare every day. And at night I still usually have the energy to work from 8:30-12 on all the things I couldn't do during the day. I even went out to dinner once this semester with my tenure-track assistant professor wife."

Now that sounds about right.

Anonymous said...

Boring post FSP, who cares that you read crappy books. Give us something fun like you have been for the past few days!

Anonymous said...

"Always thought if I didn't get tenure I would shoot myself or strap a bomb to my chest and walk into the faculty cafeteria, but when it happened I just got bourbon drunk and cried a lot and rolled into a ball on my office floor."

That is one Awesome Sentence.

Anonymous said...

I am curious about the age of Anon 9:28.

Anonymous said...

I also like the bit about a "faculty cafeteria". Do places really have these?

You should really read "Stoner" it is so well written and based on your posts, I think you would really enjoy it.

Female Science Professor said...

namnezia - I did read Stoner (last year, on a reader's suggestion, perhaps yours?) and liked it. It was interesting reading about US Academia in a bygone era, though I suspect that some of the insidious politics are not so bygone. Thanks for the recommendation.

Ana said...

I really like Kim Stanley Robinson's writing. He wrote the Mars trilogy (Red/Green/Blue Mars), and more recently Galileo's Dream (which I highly recommend). I feel like he portrays the best aspects of doing science through his characters. Not academia as such, but the joy of research!

I don't think he was ever a scientist, but he just gets it so right in his books!