Nasty, Brutish & Long

James Hynes' The Lecturer's Tale is one of the nastiest & meanest books I have read in a long time, though it is well-plotted & tells a kind of low truth about academia. Or about a certain elite segment of academia. Every character in this 388 page novel is at least unpleasant (including children) but more likely to be despicable. It is intermittently funny, though badly over-written. Scenes that would work perfectly at two or three paragraphs are extended to two or three pages, where they sag like ancient timbers. The book is full of set pieces & tours de force at the considerable expense of reality. Hynes almost pulls the whole thing off, morally speaking, in the last chapter & his extended joke about the coming corporate university rings all too true. Still, the novel has the odor of deep bitterness about it, like the smoke from burning books. Appropriate, since the novel's climax is the burning of a university library. To shift to another medium for the sake of comparison, this is a novel that wants to be Goya's Capriccios, but winds up being an R. Crumb comic. Both, of course, have their place in the culture, but we do not mistake one for the other. Both are pungent, only one sublime. As I was getting the Amazon link just now, I started reading the customer reviews & I must say they are surprisingly acute. I suggest you pull them up worst first. Most note the difference between the first half of the novel & the rest & many note the flight from reality in the second half & many note the lack of a single sympathetic character. Perhaps the main character's wife qualifies, but she is painted as a drudge. I guess I'm a common reader: these fifty-eight reviews track my response to the book pretty clearly, though I'm in the two-star camp, not, certainly, the five-star. The most glowing reviews read like standard American hatred of the academy. But then this is a novel that embodies that standard hatred.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

4 thoughts on “Nasty, Brutish & Long”

  1. I really enjoyed Hynes’s novel. There is also “Publish and Perish,” where he continues to explore the weirdness that is academic life in America. He’s one of those writers who can make me laugh out loud.

  2. Chris, I “liked” the novel in the sense that it drew me in & kept me reading. I just think it is morally deficient in the John Gardner sense of moral fiction. No doubt that’s old-fashioned of me.

  3. I apply Gardner’s claim about the close relation between flawed writing and flawed moral character only to myself these days. I have too many genuinely nice students whose writing, if I were to use Gardner, would leave me despairing about the future in metaphysical terms.

  4. Join me on the other side of that if clause, Chris. Despair has its rewards & metaphysical despair has its own high-tension frisson.

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