The Lecturer’s Tale by James Hynes
The Lecturer’s Tale by James Hynes, at its most simplistic level, tells the story of Nelson Humboldt. Nelson is a lecturer in the English department at a fictional university in the Midwest and not a very good lecturer at that. After a freakish accident in the Quad hacks off the tip of Nelson’s pointer finger, Nelson finds himself (or more accurately, finds his reattached finger) able to control the will of others. Beyond its literal plot, The Lecturer’s Tale absolutely rips into academia as a whole and modern literature departments in particular with remarkable wit and furor. But it is about where the satire slacks off a little and the evil finger takes over that the book takes a turn for the truly weird.
On the whole, I think I liked The Lecturer’s Tale. I say “I think” because it did take such a weird turn towards the end involving ghosts, demons, genitalia, gender constructs, and library/book burning (yes all at the same moment in the book) that I’m still not entirely sure what happened or if the ending was a good thing. In any event, I definitely liked the majority of the book. In my humble opinion, Hynes’ writing and general tone is just about pitch-perfect satire, blending a earnest seriousness with a good deal of winking about that seriousness. The topic at hand–academia–is perennially ripe for mocking and Hynes does so with aplomb.
Additionally, Hynes creates some wonderful characters, particularly his protagonist Nelson Humboldt. Nelson is that unique fictional creation who is immediately identified as the nice, relatable guy, but who also has an undeniable dark side (in this case personified by his nefarious finger). You are never quite sure just how far over the line beyond goodness Nelson is willing to go and his motives become increasingly murky as the story progresses and he ventures further away from what is intrinsically good. This uncertainty regarding Nelson’s character is another part of what makes The Lecturer’s Tale so good. For the entire book, the reader never knows if the book is some kind of redemption tale or if it will end up as a horror story.
So while I can’t say for sure what happened at the end of the story, I can say without reservation that The Lecturer’s Tale is a book worth reading, solely for the ongoing and absolutely scathing observations about university literature departments. The rest is just gravy.
Yep, I got this book after randomly perusing the shelves at the ole Ottendorfer. This means that this post is happily participating in Library Loot! Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Eva and Marg that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post–feel free to steal the button–and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.