By Matthew E. Milliken
March 17, 2015
The Lecturer’s Tale, a 2001 novel by James Hynes, is a wicked academic satire about an English professor who becomes extraordinarily persuasive following an accident.
The story is set at the University of the Midwest, a public institution in the Minnesota town of Hamilton Groves. (The university and town are fictitious; the state of Minnesota apparently does exist.) Moments before the tale begins, the protagonist, Nelson Humboldt, has been released from his job as a visiting adjunct professor due to budgetary reasons. This appears to signal the ruination of a once-promising scholarly career; in a matter of weeks, the married father of two young daughters will lose his job, his health insurance and his eligibility to remain in faculty housing.
But then, as Humboldt walks across the university’s teeming quad at noon on Halloween, he stumbles and falls, losing his fingertip in the spokes of a passing bicycle. The finger is sewed back together, but it suddenly seems to have magical properties: When Humboldt touches another person with his fingertip and utters a command or suggestion, the other must obey his will.
The professor first uses his power — unintentionally — when Nelson and his wife, Bridget, encounter a noisy couple at a movie theater. Humboldt walks over to them and asks them not to talk; when they start to get up, he asks them to stay where they are.
As the lights came up after the movie, Nelson noticed that the middle-aged couple were glancing anxiously back at him. The man had his hands on his throat, and was making choking sounds. Nelson hurried down the aisle.
“Are you folks okay?” he asked.
The woman, her eyes wide with fear, threw her arms around her husband as if to protect him. The man rubbed his throat and moved his mouth, but all he could do was grunt.
“What did you do to him?” the woman hissed.
Nelson’s finger began to burn again. He gripped the man by the shoulder.
“Can you breathe?” he said. “Say something, if you can.”
The man gave a shout, a wordless cry. Nelson felt that ice-water shock along his finger again, and he jerked his hand away.
“Holy mother of God, mister,” the man gasped. “What do you want from us?”
Nelson stepped back. “Nuh, nothing,” he stammered.
“Can we go now?” said the woman, her voice trembling.
“Can you go?” Nelson was bewildered. “Of course. The movie’s over. I simply…”
The man and woman both jumped up, clutching each other, and then halted. Nelson was in the aisle, blocking their way.
“I’m sorry.” He backed up, but they clambered over the seats into the row behind, then the row behind that, and then ran up the aisle, banging the swinging door and disappearing into the lobby.
“What was that all about?” Bridget asked as Nelson came slowly up the aisle.
“I have no idea,” Nelson said, but his finger burned with an icy fire.
Humboldt is a polite Iowan, but he’s also desperate. A certain intuition drives him to grab hold of a few university colleagues and implore them to maintain his housing eligibility and assign him a few sections of composition classes. They all comply.
The professor comes to realize his power, and he sets about using it to remake the academy after his vision of a more egalitarian institution. He urges the university’s poet, who mourns his lost droit du seigneur to bed attractive coeds, and whom Humboldt suspects of writing a series of nasty anti-semitic screeds to English department faculty, to resign. Humboldt variously restricts or encourages certain actions of flunkies of departmental powers that suit his own convenience.
Humboldt next resolves to win tenure for his self-effacing officemate, the ambiguously female gender theorist Vita Deonne, his closest friend in the department. To do so, he must sabotage the three nationally renowned scholars who are brought in to audition for the faculty slot opened up by the poet’s resignation, which he does in hilarious ways.
But as Humboldt’s profile rises in the department, he finds himself drawn into the struggle between the department’s chairman, a gruff, egotistical, power-observed blue-collar Jersey type; the “undergraduate chairman,” a pale, remote woman who perhaps more than Deonne views the world solely through the lenses of feminist theory; and a canon-oriented traditionalist obsessed with what he calls “the preservation of the best that has been thought and said” and “yoking oneself to the greater minds and finer sensibilities that came before.”
More alarmingly, Humboldt strains to maintain his integrity as his influence increases. He attracts, and reciprocates, the attention of the beautiful professor who is the chairman’s de facto consort; he acquires a set of expensive, elegant clothing that he conceals from his wife; he lashes out at the homeless man who has been persecuting him for years.
The novel, which has followed relatively plausible lines (setting aside the fantastic premise of the magical finger), takes a sharp turn in the final chapters. One of Humboldt’s allies turns out to have unusual properties; so too, we subsequently find, does one of his antagonists. The book climaxes with an inferno (literally and figuratively) at the library: On the same night that Humboldt and another faculty member are taken hostage by an evidently supernatural being, the nearly empty campus is assaulted in a more typical fashion. The aftermath of this event leaves Midwest transformed in ways that both conform to and twist Humboldt’s fantasy of egalitarianism.
I was fascinated by the parallels between this novel and Hynes’s 2010 book, Next. Both stories involve two pivotal falls, and both are centered on an Average White Guy in an academic setting, although Humboldt (as a married father and professor) is far more successful than Kevin Quinn, the childless and perpetually single editor (not professor) of the latter narrative.
I’d have to say that Next is the more accessible book. Although The Lecturer’s Tale is a lively read, and not extremely highbrow, it’s laced with a number of scholarly allusions, many of which went over my head. I think those who labor in academia may very much relish Hynes’s 2001 book; for others, its appeal is a bit more circumscribed. Even so, I had fun reading this novel, and I’ll continue seeking out other books by Hynes.