Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Lecturer's Tale by James Hynes

Last year I read Moo and thoroughly enjoyed it. The descriptions and the ridiculousness of academia were well displayed in Jane Smiley's book. When I finished, a friend recommended The Lecturer's Tale. I finally found a copy and happily devoured it over the holiday break.

Anyone with a graduate degree in the social sciences/humanities should read this book. Especially if you found some of the graduate school theory ludicrous, ridiculous, or otherwise downright weird. James Hyne's novel is satirical, slightly eccentric, and in certain sections ... yep, downright weird. But I laughed loud and hard and identified with a lot of what he wrote.

The basic plot: Nelson Humboldt is fired from his contract composition teaching gig at a (fictional) Ivy League University. Leaving the English building his hand gets run over by a bike and he loses a finger. He discovers that with his reattached finger he can force his will on others. In short order, Humboldt uses his power to get his job back, secure his apartment, and help his friends. However, he gets power hungry. If it sounds weird, it is. But the point of the power is to show how manipulative and power-driven academia can be. Hynes portrays that extremely well.

Hynes has an incredibly witty and deadly accurate portrayal of life in academia. He uses jargon and sexual innuendo and the ridiculous to paint a terribly pointed picture. While reading one night I was convulsing in laughter. I tried to explain what was so funny to my husband. I eventually said, "It's really not funny at all. It's just too true." Although exaggerated the scene in question (in which a flustered lecturer tries to deliver a paper on gender/queer theory to the tenured professors in the English department) could have happened in my program.

There is a point near the end of the book when Hynes jumps off the deep end. The plot gets really weird and slightly nonsensical. I was not overly found of the out-of-body type experience of the characters. Nonetheless, in order to complete his study of university life he needed a farcical denouement. He returned to the satirical depiction of university life and ended the book on a good note.

I will definitely read more work by Hynes. I would recommend this book to anyone who was heartily invested in academia - and is willing to laugh at it and themselves. However, I cannot imagine The Lecturer's Tale has a wide appeal. He purposely overuses all of the theoretical jargon that academia loves which won't make sense to some readers.

If you liked The Lecturer's Tale try:

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