I have no desire to teach—as much as I enjoy academia, I think I’m meant to work in the real world. (Real world meaning, hopefully, a publishing house or a library.) It’s definitely a rarefied environment—exactly the sort of situation that’s ripe for the picking when it comes to comedy. Today, we’re looking at two books from my never-ending reading list—one novel and one collection of novellas—that skewer academia.
Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell
Beneath the unassuming surface of a progressive women’s college lurks a world of intellectual pride and pomposity awaiting devastation by the pens of two brilliant and appalling wits. Randall Jarrell’s classic novel was originally published to overwhelming critical acclaim in 1954, forging a new standard for campus satire—and instantly yielding comparisons to Dorothy Parker’s razor-sharp barbs. Like his fictional nemesis, Jarrell cuts through the earnest conversations at Benton College—mischievously, but with mischief nowhere more wicked than when crusading against the vitriolic heroine herself.
I had never heard of Randall Jarrell until Jenny at Shelf Love sang his praises in her review of his only novel, Pictures from an Institution. As a student at a women’s college (call it a girl’s school and may the Lord have pity on you), I knew I had to read this while I’m still here.
As I said, Jenny loved it—a series of comic vignettes that treats its characters tenderly, not viciously. I haven’t been able to find other book blogger reviews for it, which I find unfortunate—Jarrell sounds like a man thoroughly worth a shot. (It’s the literary criticism, isn’t it?)
Pictures from an Institution was published in 1954.
Publish and Perish by James Hynes
Three witty, spooky novellas of satire set in academia–a world where Derrida rules, love is a “complicated ideological position,” and poetic justice is served with a supernatural twist. In “Queen of the Jungle,” young academics Paul and Elizabeth appear to enjoy a comfortable, tenure-track marriage, commuting between their jobs on either side of the Midwest. When Paul begins an affair with Kymberly, a graduate student, Elizabeth’s cat Charlotte deviously arranges revenge for her absent owner and teaches Paul a lesson about infidelity that can’t be learned at any university. “99” is the story of Gregory Eyck, a cultural anthropologist whose conference on the death of Captain Cook fails miserably and threatens his career. Eyck accepts an assignment in England with the BBC and travels to a mysterious town near Stonehenge where he finds himself an unwitting participant/observer in a bizarre pagan ritual. And in “Casting the Runes,” a junior history professor named Virginia Dunning finds that she must defend not only her postmodernist ideology but also her very life from the greed and sorcery of an older, senior professor. The academic satire of Jane Smiley and David Lodge seasoned with pinches of Poe, M. R. James, and Stephen King, Publish and Perish is stylish, unsettling, and funny on every page.
While I tend to vaguely assume that a lot of the recommendations I don’t remember come from Nancy Pearl, I absolutely know that Publish and Perish came to me through Book Lust—it’s recommended in one of the very first sections (or so I recall. It’s been two years). Academia and darkly funny horror? That sounds like a winning combination.
Paula Guran at DarkEcho finds that Hynes strikes the right balance between serious horror and hilarious farce—and that Hynes’ horror is accessible to non-horror fans. (This is hugely important for squeamish me.) Clay Smith, in this article on Hynes for The Austin Chronicle, finds Publish and Perish to be brimming with wit. All in all, pretty promising, don’t you think?
Publish and Perish was published in the June of 1997.