In his trio of novellas, Publish and Perish, James Hynes played with a diabolically simple idea: what happens when materialist, anti-essentialist postmodern academics meet the nether-worldly Other. Hynes weaved satire, horror and keen observation to gleefully dissect the manners of American academia. To that trio, we can now add a fourth story, The Lecturer’s Tale, a bold, knowing academic fantasia.
The Lecturer’s Tale begins on Halloween as the clock in the gothic library tower at the University of the Midwest rings thirteen. At that instant, a bicyclist in a "freak accident" shears off recently fired adjunct lecturer in English Nelson Humboldt's index finger. When the bandages are removed, Nelson discovers that his fortune has changed. His reattached finger has the magical ability to enforce his will. Initially, Nelson intends to use this Midas touch to benefit others. He uses his new power to help his last friend in the department, the seemingly asexual literary theorist Vita Deonne, get tenure. But Nelson soon forgoes magnanimity as his reputation grows and he becomes embroiled in the power politics of the University of the Midwest's English Department.
The English Department is enthralled in a struggle between the Tony-Soprano-meets-Stanley-Fish department chair Anthony Pescecane, the feminist Victoria Victorinix, and the traditionalist Morton Weissman. When Nelson assists in the removal of a problematic drunken Irish poet, the resulting open position threatens to change the balance of power in the department. Nelson, mediocre at best, now holds the ear of all three of the major players, and the small stakes of academic infighting become a conflagration of phantasmagoric proportion.
Hynes plays with the culture of North American literary studies with such adroitness that there are jokes and insights that probably do not resonate much beyond the academy. For instance, he can't resist the lit crit inside joke; the most cringe-worthy occurs when the Serbian theorist Marko Kraljevic (a stand-in for Slovenian theorist Slavoj Zizek) confronts Nelson in the library. Nelson shields himself with a copy of a text called Blindness and Insight. Kraljevic approves, declaring "You de Man, Nelson!" It's a terrible pun, one that only those familiar with the ex-Nazi literary critic Paul de Man would understand, but it is also one that expands the character of the hyper-theorist Kraljevic by illustrating his triple menace. There is the physical menace of the crazy, violent Serb, the threat to the literary studies and literature that the never-quiet theorist represents, and the poverty of the wordplay and allusiveness that passes for postmodern scholarship.
Thus fans of academic satires -- David Lodge, Francine Prose, et al -- should enjoy The Lecturer's Tale. Hynes mocks the range of literary personae -- from Canadian lady novelists to canon-loving conservatives -- so people of any intellectual persuasion can find something to laugh at or recognize. But Hynes' sympathies obviously lie with the two "justified sinners" who repent their errant ways, Nelson and Anthony Pescecane. Both recognize that while the gods of academia may have touched them directly and brought them power, it is humility that redeems them in the end.