You know, why bother with an academic satire--the misbehavior, the sauce, the preening display of tattered plumage evident in many tintype empires but so extravagantly exaggerated in departmental battles, the oppressive gender politics or commentary on oppressive gender politics, did I mention egos?: egos--why bother, again? Kingsley Amis nailed it, and no satire's been so sharp since. He dulled all the other knives.
But then Richard Russo, seeming to echo Amis, actually wrote a comedy--tough, biting, but also generous: a corrosive compassion for his pomo polemicists and wannabe novelists and smalltown monographers. Russo's funnier, and more humane, and don't tell anyone but maybe I like it even better than Amis.
But, hell, I teach and work in a small college. Every day I'm lucky, Jim. Who needs another novel when each new day my own fresh satire?
But then I read, and adored, Lynn Coady's most recent novel, The Antagonist
, and wandered around ABEbooks to find a copy of an earlier novel, most of which seem out of print in the states. And Mean Boy
was the first to arrive.
And it is familiar. There's no getting around the olde story of the aspiring poet from the hinterlands, trying to please a literary Idol with the clay feet and the emotional hoop-de-doo and the alky shenanigans and the.... And the local politics. And the ...
You know, it all doesn't matter. Coady's as good as Russo. The book is bitter when you expect a smooth sentiment, and sweet when derision seems the obvious tack, and smart, and goddamned funny. And it was a delight to see the outlines of the later novel's "antagonist," Rank here prefigured in the outsized and wonderful Charles Slaughter, who teaches some peers who've displeased him a lesson by taking a dump in their coffeepot and setting it on the stove. And whose revealed pain is enormously affecting, even 'though I knew it was coming.
Affecting is maybe a good word for Coady's fiction. Far from affected, and rigorous in boiling away any pathos. But I felt for, even when most vigorously laughing at, these people. She sees them, shows them. Characters have conventional arcs but idiosyncratic voices. Throwaway bits--the fucking hippies at the local hotel, the viciousness of grandma Lydia, the pointless quotation marks in local advertising that drive Larry up the wall--made me laugh every other page. Larry's central voice, that insufferable ignorance of the adolescent artist, actually matures over the course of the novel. No epiphany. He doesn't learn something. Yet Coady captures, conveys subtly that slow evolution from cheese-eating high-school boy (to quote a Canadian band) to some kind of adulthood--the kind I still have (on good days): still prone to dipshittery, still trapped in shallow needs, still confounded by others. But paying attention to those others.
Maybe it's not "affecting": Coady makes me pay attention to people. She's a helluva writer and I have a huge crush. Where's the next book?