Posts Tagged ‘The Lecturer’s Tale’

When life gives you the (magic) finger: James Hynes ventures into a mixture of fantasy and academic satire in ‘The Lecturer’s Tale’

March 17, 2015

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.

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