Hell Is Not Socially Constructed

Postmodernism and horror meet in the stories of James Hynes

James Hynes writes fiction of a satirical bent, set in or around the world of contemporary academia. He depicts skirmishes in the culture wars, and the various pitfalls and ironies in the lives of people with Ph.Ds.

The academic novel has a rich tradition, but in today’s context of campus politics and dense theoretical jargon, choosing academia as subject matter risks being too trendy or inside-baseball. Not every reader appreciates a Derrida joke or a Lacan allusion. In a hundred years, maybe no one will get — or care to get — these references.

Then again, Hynes’s works are novels of manners like any other, born of the tension between a social milieu with a baroque (and sometimes oppressive) set of norms, and fully formed characters who don’t quite fit the paradigm. The academic blogger Timothy Burke has called graduate school a “cotillion for eggheads, ” where tenured faculties function as chaperones — and hey, Jane Austen wrote about cotillions.

In his latest novel, Kings of Infinite Space, Hynes veers into the area of white-collar drudgery a la Mike Judge’s Office Space (though his lead character is a Ph.D.-holding refugee from academia). But his cubicle Hell, whatever else it is, is just another absurd social situation that’s hard to fit into. Even if you’ve never set foot in a faculty lounge or a suburban office park, below the surface details these are struggles that readers can relate to and laugh at.

Hynes’s writing is also notable for the serio-comic use of elements of horror fiction. We meet ghosts and vampires and bloodthirsty zombies; we observe supernatural signs. The presence of evil or uncontrollable forces in these stories implicitly undercuts postmodern rationalism, though sometimes in a tongue-in-cheek way. Hell is not socially constructed. Multiculturalism is all well and good, but when confronted with a subculture that practices, say, ritual human sacrifice, even a tenured radical may have to draw the line.

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Publish and Perish (1997) is a set of three novellas. The first story, “Queen of the Jungle, ” features Paul Trilby, a young Ph.D. in English literature. His wife Elizabeth is also an academic, but her career prospects are bright while his are dim. They have a commuter marriage: she’s tenure-track at a major research university in Chicago, and he’s laboring in obscurity as a contract instructor at a cow college in Iowa. He’s also having an affair with a student, and hatches a plan to use his wife’s influence to secure himself a job in Chicago and then dump Elizabeth in favor of young Kymberly. But he is haunted by a wicked case of writer’s block, as well as the mysterious agency of Elizabeth’s uncanny house cat Charlotte, who fiendishly leaves evidence of Paul’s infidelity in Elizabeth’s path.

“99” is the story of the roguishly handsome anthropologist Gregory Eyck. Gregory’s star status in academia takes a tumble after a spectacular lapse of political correctness at a conference on the death of Captain Cook, but he is making a comeback of sorts as the globetrotting host of a BBC documentary series. Partly as research and partly to distract himself from the pain of a break-up, Gregory makes an excursion to the English countryside, to a village known for its standing stones and crop circles. Gregory believes himself equipped to handle any encounter with an alien culture, but a cult of latter-day Druids manipulates him for its purposes in ways he does not foresee.

The third novella, “Casting the Runes, ” presents a plagiarist as a kind of succubus. Virginia Dunning is a young historian whose pursuit of tenure is blocked by a senior colleague, Victor Karswell. Karswell combines the power of his position with the practice of witchcraft, a skill he has picked up in the course of his obscure and seemingly irrelevant research. He casts a spell on Virginia that will doom her to madness and death, and allow him to pass her work off as his; but in the climactic scene, set at a scholarly conference, Virginia contrives to use academic politics and gender-role confusion to her advantage in an effort to defeat Karswell’s spell.

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Even more than in Publish and Perish, Hynes indulges himself in poking over-the-top, name-dropping fun at postmodernism in his novel The Lecturer’s Tale (2001). The English department at Midwest University is a menagerie of literary stereotypes: the ravenously polyamorous Hugh M. Hefner Chair of Sexuality Studies, the Croatian theorist with a mysterious past, the middle-aged formalist critic of fading reputation, the hard-drinking Irish poet, “the lady Canadian novelist” (nobody can remember her actual name). These characters pinball off one another in political intrigues, intellectual sparring, and just plain pissing contests. I got a particular charge out of the scene at a riotous faculty meeting, when the Croatian bad boy Kraljevic cold-cocks the Irish poet Coogan with a karate kick, then brandishes a switchblade at Weissmann, the old New Critic, and triumphantly declares, “Thus I refute logocentrism. ”

These overdramatic personae are carrying on in the background, while in the foreground, straight-laced family man Nelson Humboldt gets the news (on Halloween) that his post-doctorate position has been terminated. Unemployment and eviction (from married-student housing) are just around the corner. On the same day, though, Nelson’s right index finger is severed in a freak accident on the campus quad. A doctor reattaches it, but from then on Nelson has the strange ability to bend people to his will by touching them with the finger. He uses this magic to get his lecturer’s job back, then to insinuate himself into the power struggles in the department.

Nelson is a classic liberal who wants to reconcile the clashing factions. And early on, he seeks power (i.e., tenure) not for himself but for his friend Vita Deonne, the brilliant but shy gender theorist who has a terrible time putting theory into practice. But Nelson is soon seduced by his dark gift, which is eerily connected to an apparition — the ghost of a tormented graduate student, who haunts the clock tower in the library annex. Nelson betrays his friends and family for trivial academic glory (a nice office with a view, an affair with a sexy colleague), and betrays intellectual integrity in favor of trendy mediocrity. The results are apocalyptic. Weakening the canon, it turns out, can actually cause the walls of the university to burn and crumble.

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Hynes’s latest, the novel Kings of Infinite Space (2004), takes the phenomenon of adjunctivitis and pushes it to an extreme. Paul Trilby (who first appeared in Publish and Perish) has torpedoed himself time and time again: wrecking his marriage to a rising academic star, losing his adjunct teaching position, ruining two other romances, and even squandering a job with a school textbook publishing company (he got caught embedding obscene anagrams into the lessons). Now Paul finds himself working in Cubeland as an eight-dollar-an-hour temp employee for the Texas state government. (“You have a Ph.D.? Wow! I bet you have an awesome typing score! ”)

Things are starting to look up, though, as Paul begins a relationship with Callie, the mail clerk in the office, who seeks to improve herself by reading the Norton Anthology during coffee breaks. A contract tech writer drops dead at his desk, presenting an opportunity for Paul to advance in the organization. But Paul remains plagued by self-destructive tendencies, and prone to feelings of entitlement and condescension both toward his office job and Callie. He is also still haunted, night after sleepless night, by the enchanted cat Charlotte, the emblem of his past failures and infidelities.

Strange occurrences are mounting up at work, too. There’s the tech writer who dies — and whose body then mysteriously vanishes. Cryptic messages appear on Post-It notes in Paul’s cubicle, and on the signs held by homeless men standing by the side of the road near the office. Paul’s co-workers, a group of embittered nerdy white guys, never lift a finger around the office, yet their finished paperwork materializes on the manager’s desk each morning as if by magic. There seem to be cavernous hidden spaces above the drop ceiling, and inside the glass and aluminum recycling bins.

Gradually, his co-workers — J.J., Bob, and the Colonel — bring Paul into their confidence and reveal their cultic mysteries to him. They are part of an army of quasi-zombies: not the undead, exactly — more like the Downsized. Their leader is Stanley, a once-legendary bureaucratic heavyweight in Texas government, who was forced to quit over a sexual harassment lawsuit. They want Paul to join their army, but first he has to provide an offering. Suffice it to say, his girlfriend Callie wouldn’t be amused.

Like other of Hynes’s protagonists, Paul is offered a Faustian bargain, but the prize he may receive, at the cost of compromising his humanity, is only cheap privilege and a paltry vision of security: a civil service job with an adequate salary and protection against being fired. The underground Evil Empire represents the resurgence of the white male establishment and traditional pieties and proprieties that ruled American life a generation ago.

Encounters with the irrational or occult also dramatize the existential isolation of Hynes’s characters. A modern, rational, sensible, worldly-wise person doesn’t see ghosts, and if he does he certainly doesn’t admit it to anyone. The title of Kings of Infinite Space is a nod to old Prince Hamlet, who has a similar dilemma: he can’t process his visions of his father’s ghost, because he’s an aesthete and an intellectual. But once the encounter happens, Hynes’s Ph.D.s are liberated and reconnected. After braving the underworld of the ghoulish nerds, Paul is free to explore a relationship of equals with Callie. (Whether she’ll take him back or not is another question.) In The Lecturer’s Tale, a climactic fire reduces Midwest University from a great research institution to a community college, but in the aftermath Nelson Humboldt rediscovers his passion for simply teaching literature to average students.

If you’re in the market for fiction that keeps you turning pages but gives your temporal lobes a good workout at the same time, give James Hynes a look-see. There’s horror to thrill you, farce to tickle your funny bone, literary-historical motifs to divert you, and resonant sociological insights for you to ruminate on.