Don Peteroy: Come mid-February, I will stand before three examiners and, hopefully, demonstrate that the University of Cincinnati’s English department didn’t make a grave mistake when they accepted me for PhD candidacy. My areas of study are Skepticism on the Early Modern Stage and Comic Fiction. Since May, I have been trudging through my reading lists. One of the modules in my Comic Fiction area involves campus satires. I hadn’t chosen this deliberately; after about a month of reading I’d noticed an unequal proportion of humorous novels that take place at colleges and universities. At first glance, one might be hesitant to read campus satires insofar as the genre might presuppose specialized knowledge of institutional practices and utilize professional discourses that, to anyone outside of academia, would sound like gibberish. The four novels (of about ten campus satires) I’d like to mention—Moo by Jane Smiley, Straight Man by Richard Russo, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, and Blue Angel by Francine Prose—are wholly inviting to readers, even those who have not experienced nonsensical departmental meetings, tenure committees, the constant threat of funding cuts, interdepartmental rivalries, academic infidelities, and, of course, irate students. While these four novels contextualize their narratives within the university system, academia is simply the satirical medium though which we gain access to—I hate to use this phrase—universal human folly. In other words, the pressures inherent to these institutions bring out in the characters shortcomings that anyone can relate to.
Each novel uses humor differently, though they all gesture toward tragedy. Unlike novels by Christopher Moore, Douglas Adams, and Carl Hiaasen—where the comic elements are the consistent, primary focus—the particular novels I’ve chosen either begin funny and evolve into tragedy (though some portray the inverse), or they’re primarily tragic with moments of comic relief. The common question raised in campus satires concerns the extent of individual autonomy: Do institutions necessitate “bad behavior,” and how difficult is it to free oneself from the institutional script? The humor in these novels lies precisely in individuals’ efforts to stand apart from the inevitable rivalries, conflicts, infidelities, gossip, and backstabbing.
Amis’s Lucky Jim follows James Dixon’s catastrophic trajectory during what might end up being his final year as a lecturer of Medieval History. Naturally, he wants reappointment, but his immaturity—often manifested in his resistance to institutional etiquette—gets in the way. He’s a master of self-sabotage—an alcoholic and a compulsive prankster—and he manages to conflate the disasters of his personal and professional life with utmost expertise. For any reader who fantasizes about raging against the institutions that govern their own lives, Jim provides a perfect vicarious experience. His tragic fate is inevitable; by the end of the first chapter we know he’ll lose his job, but the pleasure in Lucky Jim is in the journey,which builds up to a final scene in which he must give a high-stakes public lecture. He’s drunk, cynical, heartbroken, and unprepared. As readers, we’re divided: we want Jim to get something right for once, but we also want to see just how far he can push his own ruin. Typical of the final act of classic farces, everything goes wrong, and more. It’s one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read, but I’m not laughing at Jim—he isn’t the fool here. It’s the entire system that made this train wreck possible.
The humor and satire I enjoyed in Russo’s Straight Man and Prose’s Blue Angel center on classroom and departmental power dynamics. In Straight Man, William Henry Devereaux, Jr, a professor and an unlikely chairman of the department, must deal with the possibility of budget cuts (his diplomatic maneuver: he threatens to kill a duck a day until the budget passes), ridiculous rivalries, and extramarital temptations. The novel asks whether Devereaux is competent to do anything, and the narrative moves form one trial to the next, offering both funny and heartbreaking episodes that reveal what Devereaux is really made of. Blue Angel is similar, though Prose is doing something courageous, bold, and downright terrifying. Returning to the question of how much autonomy individuals have in institutions that more or less construct and define individuals’ behaviors and identities, Prose puts Ted Swenson, an “innocent” and content middle-aged professor who loves his wife unconditionally, in a situation in which he experiences urgent temptation to conduct a sexual affair with an undergraduate. This is a rather sophisticated and complex circumstance: readers are convinced that Swenson would never act so disgracefully, yet something subtle suggests his act of harassment and infidelity is inevitable. We can’t pin the blame on him entirely: the institution he’s wrapped up in makes his disgrace inexorable, and the young woman clearly desires him for self-serving reasons. Yet, we cannot exonerate him either. This is, essentially, a novel about a man who is in denial of his act of sexual harassment. It’s haunting, it’s gross, and it manages to be funny (its humor, like in the previous novels, centers on exposing the pretensions of academic culture). Prose embraces the height of ambition here, making us laugh in the most uncomfortable of situations.
I’ve found that humorous novels delivered in first-person and close-third seem to exhaust the humorous voice after about fifty pages. In Moo, Jane Smiley overcomes this obstacle by narrating in a roving third-person POV, each chapter focusing on a different individual within the academic institution. As a result, each segment is fresh: we get voices and modes of interiority characterized by wild idiosyncrasies. Furthermore, the characters work in different departments within the university, so we experience diverse discourses. Ultimately, these eccentric voices clash, so the pleasure and humor never run dry.