At the outset of James Hynes’ latest novel, “A Lecturer’s Tale,” the author invokes Robert Browning: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp / Or what’s a heaven for?”
This oft-quoted morsel of poetry serves not only as a mantra for the book’s protagonist, Nelson Humboldt, a would-be tenured professor of English literature at a prestigious Midwestern university, but it seems also to have inspired Hynes himself. An academic thriller that skewers a wide range of literary theories and the academics who hold them dear, “The Lecturer’s Tale” is nothing if not ambitious. And although Hynes’ reach ultimately falls slightly short of his grasp, parts of his superdark satiric novel are, if not heavenly, certainly impressively evocative of the hellish halls of academe.
Nelson Humboldt is an Everyman — an everystraightmidwesternwhiteman — who dreams of bridging the gap between those who would uphold the white male cannon and those who would banish it for all time and embrace instead works that are … let’s term it, as Nelson at one point does, “counterhegemonic.” He also dreams of tenure. But the theoretical middle ground Nelson has staked out has stranded him in no-man’s land.
When first we meet Nelson, he has tumbled from his tenure track, downward through the ranks, and has bottomed out as “a former visiting adjunct lecturer, on his way to failed academic.” But moments after he gets booted out of the English department — on Halloween, natch — a mighty strange thing happens as Nelson hurries across the crowded quad.
Someone calls his name three times and — just as the clock in the library tower tolls 13 — Nelson turns toward the mysterious voice, stumbles backwards over a woman stooping behind him and throws his arms out to break his fall. At that exact moment, a bicycle passes and slices off his right index finger.
When Nelson comes to in the hospital, his finger has been reattached — and, although he’s been told he will have lost all sensation in the digit, it throbs, burns and tingles. Soon Nelson will realize that his reattached finger has the power to make people do his bidding with a single touch.
At first, Nelson uses his magical digit as an instrument of good. Touch! His family does not get kicked out of university housing. Touch! He gets his lectureship back. Then he sets to work to get tenure for his office mate, Vita Deonne, his only friend in the department.
But somewhere along the line, Nelson loses his sense of purpose, along with his innate selflessness and decency, and gets wildly ambitious. He embarks on a mad quest for tenure, for power, for extramarital sex. And along with Nelson, the story itself loses its bearings and begins to spin wildly out of control.
Hynes has brought us into the insular world of academia, introduced us to its nutty denizens (many of them, I understand, are parodies of real academics, familiar to some, though not to me), made us kinda love them and their wacky theoretical squabbles, and then stripped them of their personalities and made them dance. It’s dizzying — and something of a betrayal.
Hynes’ literary reach ultimately exceeds his grasp. But his heavenly ambitions — and passages of glittering satire, shining here and there like stars — are admirable nonetheless.