Alan's Reviews > The Lecturer's Tale

The Lecturer's Tale by James Hynes
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's review
Jun 26, 2009

really liked it
Recommended to Alan by: Mari's Books in Yachats, Oregon (plug)
Recommended for: Anyone who's still a little wistful about the Western Canon
Read in June, 2009 , read count: 2

The Western Canon is on the run. All those books by Dead White Males, the "male and pale" - those volumes that to some minds define civilization, are beseiged, under attack from every quarter, their territory surrounded and encroached upon by upstarts and pretenders of every stripe. It'd take magic, some (to coin a term) deus ex machina , even to eke out a compromise that allows Shakespeare and Milton and James Hogg (who?) and their august company to retain a little shelf space in the new university. Or so it appears, anyway, from Nelson Humboldt's viewpoint as a university lecturer - former lecturer, really, since he's just been fired from the faculty of prestigious Midwestern University.

And then... the miracle actually happens. A little bit of magic. Nelson's finger is severed in a freak accident on the university Quad, and when it's reattached, he finds that he can use that finger to make people do, and think, what he wants them to.

Hilarity, or something very much like it, ensues. For Nelson's really not very good at deciding what to do with his new power, and his choices lead to some pretty funny consequences for him and for Hynes' cast of characters (and caricatures), all of whom are vividly-drawn (if sometimes a bit lacking in nuance). From the tough-talking department chairperson Tony Pescecane to Linda Proserpina in the Comp. Department, whom Nelson helps quit smoking with disastrous consequences, everyone has a comedic role to play.

Sharp observation of academia and precise, bitter sarcasm infuse this novel, and Hynes' pyrotechnic prose helps things along... his description of the poor part-time English Composition teachers in their basement cubicles (p. 63) is but one example:
A few composition teachers lived in hope: faculty wives making a little extra money; the department's own recent Ph.D.s teaching a year of comp as they played the job market. MFA students treading water as they finished their novels. But most of the comp teachers were divorced moms and single women with cats who taught eight classes a year and earned a thousand dollars per class, who clung to their semester-to-semester contracts with the desperate devotion of anchoresses. They combined the bitter esprit de corps of assembly-line workers with the literate wit of the overeducated. They were the steerage of the English Department, the first to drown if the budget sprang a leak. They were the Morlocks to the Eloi of the eighth floor.

From the Chaucerian title to the H.G. Wells reference above and beyond, Hynes shows an intimate familiarity with these beleaguered works. But Hynes also shows familiarity with, and often a great deal of sympathy towards, the challengers of the canon. Nelson himself experiences a telling epiphany about the arbitrariness and ubiquity of text. And, like his protagonist, Hynes seems to want to honor all literature, not just that which has been ratified by English professors. Hynes' foray into fantasy is not just a literary conceit; it's an admission that hey, maybe those pop-culture genres, those non-European, multi-gendered, transgressive fictions have a point after all. Generous of him, I know.

It takes awhile to get there, and it makes some pretty unsavory detours along the way, but in the end The Lecturer's Tale is a book with serious points to make about literature and inclusiveness. And, don't forget, it's funny too. Not many books can manage both. This is one of 'em.

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