I’m a sucker for a good novel set on a college campus, especially a comic novel. There’s no shortage of great ones: Moo by Jane Smiley, The Lecturer’s Tale by James Hynes, On Beauty by Zadie Smith, Straight Man by Richard Russo, My Latest Grievance by Elinor Lipman.
Emily Fox Gordon, acclaimed memoirist (Mockingbird Years, Are You Happy?) sets her debut novel in the philosophy department of a Texas university. Ben Blau is the department chair; his wife Ruth is an ex-lecturer in the creative writing program who has a long-term case of writer’s block. She’s prone to overdrinking, mouthing off at faculty potlucks, and bearing elaborate grudges. Gordon’s right-on-the-money descriptions of the well-worn patterns of a long marriage are both bittersweet and hilarious. Here she waits for her long-winded husband to wrap up a conversation with a former student:
“Professor Blau!” the student cried out, bounding up the steps. A frenetic session of handshaking ensued, but Ruth could see by Ben’s warm vague smile that this young man had him at a momentary disadvantage.
The student, or ex-student, was sandy-haired and sunburnt. His aviator sunglasses hung from a braided leather cord around his neck. Now he was telling them about his year as an intern in a senator’s office and how he’d gotten into the Stanford program. Remember Alison, his girlfriend? She was in med school and they were getting married in December. Here he glanced shyly at Ruth.
A pause. The preliminaries had been gotten through, and Ruth knew all too well what would happen next. The student would ask Ben’s advice and Ben would dispense it. Ruth would stand there, trapped and excluded, shifting from one foot to the other in an ecstasy of boredom. Twenty minutes, forty minutes. At some point the conversation would begin to wind down. After a long diminuendo of farewells the student would excuse himself. But even then, the danger would not have passed. It had happened more than once that even as Ben’s interlocutor had turned and taken several steps away, Ben remembered some final piece of advice — a colleague to look up, a course to avoid — and actually called the student back. The coffin sprang open and the grinning corpse of the conversation sat bolt upright.
…a practice she found both tempting and dread-provoking and usually indulged in only when she’d had a number of drinks. But this morning despair had made her reckless and recklessness had numbed her: Why should she care how many hits she had? Her books, after all, had been published long before the advent of the Internet; that was always a face-saving thing to remember… Her Google flame had been flickering for years and now it was sputtering. It was an oddly luxurious sensation, watching herself disappear. Even so, she scrolled down through the pages, looking for something new, some mention, perhaps, of her name in a retrospective consideration of academic comedies, something on the order of “And who could forget Getting Good, Ruth Blau’s sparkling contribution to the genre?” Or even a citation in a doctoral dissertation: that would be better than nothing. But what she found — what she’d known all along she’d find — was only page after page of used- and rare-book listings and a few familiar gum wads of acknowledgment she’d already chewed flavorless.
Gordon’s supporting characters are just as colorful: Ben and Ruth’s mentally disturbed son Isaac, who chooses to live on the street; the sylphlike memoirist, Ricia Spottiswoode, newly arrived on campus; the incoming college president, Dr. Lee Wayne Dreddle, previously dean of the Business School at Land O’Lakes University in Wisconsin; Hayley Gamache, the plastic fairy fanatic and human train wreck of an administrative assistant Ben inherits when the Dean grabs his flawless veteran assistant in a power play… the list goes on. The names alone are priceless; Gordon credits her husband’s “fevered and fertile imagination” for the names of characters, institutions, places, journals, and journal articles in the book.
This novel walks a perfect line between being funny and having something to say. I’m looking forward to her next novel; in the meantime, I like her style enough to check out her memoirs.
author photograph: Joseph Constantine