Review

The Lecturer's Tale

by James Hynes

With
its Ivory Tower exclusivity and self-important populace, academia
--- like the political arena or the Hollywood scene --- lends
itself perfectly to satire. Few authors are as intent on evidencing
the veracity of this claim as James Hynes. THE LECTURER'S TALE
marks his second foray into the bizarre and hilarious world of
academic mismanners (PUBLISH AND PERISH being his first). This time
around, English professors at a fictitious Midwestern University
comprise Hynes's cast of unsuspecting fools. A motley crew as far
as critical ideologies and pretensions go, the professors do,
however, share a common thread: they all go to absurd lengths for
the sake of promotion, fame, power, and the respect of their
colleagues. A withering and erudite dark comedy, THE LECTURER'S
TALE will do doubt become a favorite among disgruntled students at
universities far and wide.
Nelson Humboldt is a visiting adjunct lecturer (higher
education jargon for a post-graduate bottom feeder with no hope of
tenure) in the English Department at Midwestern; that is, until
he's summarily dismissed from his job. Moments after his
unceremonious firing, Nelson is involved in a freak bicycle
accident and gets his index finger chopped off. The finger is
reattached, but when the bandages come off, he discovers he now
possesses a special power --- like a psychological Midas, Nelson
can make people do as he says by simply touching them with the dead
appendage. It is not long before Nelson is found "convincing" the
housing coordinator to extend his housing eligibility and the
Department's undergraduate chair to give him his old job
back.
The
latter half of Hynes's tale takes on a dark, distinctively Faustian
feel. Now thoroughly drunk on his newfound power, Nelson sets his
sights on the one thing every second-rate lecturer hopes against
hope and secretly prays for at night…tenure. In a matter of
weeks, he goes from teaching undergraduate composition classes (a
humiliation like no other) to being eagerly sought after by the
humanists, for whom "we must preserve the cultural tradition from
Plato to Norman Mailer" is a mantra, and the cultural theorists,
those young and hip new critics who publish papers with titles like
"The Lesbian Phallus of Dorian Gray." The Department, the
University, indeed the entire canon of Critical Theory is finally
Nelson's for the taking.
While Hynes's plot contains sufficient twisting and turning to
carry the reader along fairly smoothly, it's his brilliantly
realized assembly of theory obsessed, acid-tongued literati that
make THE LECTURER'S TALE such a wickedly funny and dead on parody.
From the terrifying and militant Victoria Victorinix who, "after
twenty-five years of ostracism, and worse, because of her sexual
preference, had outlasted the genteel bigotry of deans, chairmen,
and senior colleagues to end up as a full tenured professor," to
Marko Kraljevic "the short, dark, thick-set Serb, lycanthropically
hirsute, with a single black eyebrow…who referred to himself
as an intellectual samurai, the Toshiro Mifune of cultural studies,
claiming nothing and everything as his specialty," to the Canadian
Lady Novelist who was "reputed to be like Margaret Atwood, only
nicer," Hynes perfectly captures the eccentricity of academia and
the posturing that typifies it: name-dropping, spontaneous passage
recitations, bombastic pontifications, endlessly circuitous
semantic debates, and political correctness.
This
is not to suggest that Hynes's objective is merely to reduce his
characters to an amalgamation of self-absorbed idiosyncrasies ---
his wit is far too piercing, his character analysis far too
insightful for that. Rather, Hynes is offering a serious critique
of culturally based approaches to critical theory, a movement that
has become very en vogue in the study of literature. The
question/criticism at the heart of THE LECTURER'S TALE is really:
Why must we endlessly reinterpret, deconstruct, and otherwise
adulterate texts in a transparent attempt to feed contemporary
intellectual society's obsession with sexual/textual politics? That
Hynes, and the more staunch professors at Midwestern, refuse to
take seriously the recent spate of literature with laughable titles
like "I Gang Bang the Canon, which featured fantasies of sex with
famous canonical authors" is humorously appreciated. What is not
appreciated, however, is (1) the assumption that critical
approaches grounded in cultural theory are trash, and (2) that the
authors of said criticism are all hyper-sexualized women and/or
militant lesbian femi-nazis. Indeed, the biggest weakness in
Hynes's work is the extent to which he blames popular culturalists
for the downfall of critical theory, while sympathizing with the
poor, white, male traditionalists. His point may be partially
valid, but for his argument to be as convincing as his comic
portrayals, it needs to be a little less one-sided."
THE
LECTURER'S TALE is high-brow comedy, and therefore not for
everyone. This is certainly not a criticism, but rather a simple
caveat for readers. If you don't/won't/can't see the humor behind
the English department's shameless wooing of jennifer manly
(intentionally spelled lower case, a la bell hooks), whose latest
book on O. J. Simpson was "a bricolage of Judith Butler, Frantz
Fanon, and Court TV [in which] she proved that Mark Furhman had
planted the Bloody Glove as an act of repressed longing for O. J."
--- THE LECTURER'S TALE may leave you feeling hopelessly
befuddled.
W.
H. Auden once said, "The goal of Satire is to reform, the Goal of
Comedy acceptance." Certainly, there are elements to this book that
some would find unacceptable (like, say, cultural theorists or
people indifferent to the fact that there even exists a movement
called cultural theory). And by the same token, there is an
underlying call for change in THE LECTURER'S TALE, likely propelled
by Hynes's deeply felt intellectual/moral/political outrage. (
Remember the Students! and Let My Old-School White Intellectuals
Go! would be great battle cries for Hynes as he rallies his troops
for reformation.) Ultimately, though, there exists a fundamental
problem with satire: the subjects being parodied, whether they be
academics or politicians, are among the least likely to ever change
their ways. Having recognized many of my own professor's in THE
LECTURER'S TALE, I found the idea of them pausing for a moment of
introspection an endless source of amusement.

Reviewed by Lazarus Penultimate on January 22, 2011

The Lecturer's Tale
by James Hynes

  • Publication Date: January 8, 2001
  • Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction
  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 0312203322
  • ISBN-13: 9780312203320