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The Fighting Owls

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Though the opening scene of Emily Fox Gordon’s debut novel is set in Nirvana, its protagonist has attained nothing like serenity. Nirvana is the graduate-student bar where 56-year-old Ruth Blau sits tippling and pondering the banality of her existence at the university where her husband Ben chairs the philosophy department. “This was a drinking establishment,” Ruth notes, “but no place could be safer or duller.” She dismisses the students as “a stunningly docile bunch” and the school as a “quiet Southern campus … living at the end of history.”

“Dull,” is her verdict. “Dull dull dull. Nirvana was dull. Potluck dinners were dull. Convocations were dull. … Lectures were almost always dull. The department picnic was so dull. … She herself was dull.”

Dullness is an affliction for anyone, but Ruth is a writer, or at least was one—the author of three critically acclaimed novels—until she lost her artistic bearings 25 years ago. And while Alexander Pope managed in The Dunciad to make epic comedy out of the triumph of dullness, Ruth is desperate to find more vibrant inspiration. When a local busybody asks her what she’s working on, Ruth jokes that it’s a novel about Alzheimer’s called It Will Come to Me.

Gordon’s It Will Come to Me is that hoary concoction: a self-begetting novel, the story of how Ruth Blau recovers sufficient literary powers to be able to write something like It Will Come to Me—a novel not about Alzheimer’s, but rather about the life of a weary faculty wife striving to recover her creativity after staring too long at blank pages. We finish the novel confident that it will come to Ruth—the capacity to write a book much like the one we have just read.

Ruth is encouraged in her comeback by Ricia Spottiswoode, a visiting writer who made her reputation with a memoir, I’m Nobody, and whose latest work, The Divining Rod: Feeling Your Way Through Writers’ Block, is a literary self-help book.

Gordon made her own reputation through two memoirs, Mockingbird Years: A Life In and Out of Therapy (2001) and Are You Happy?: A Childhood Remembered (2006). She makes her home in Houston, a city that resembles Spangler, the fictional Texas setting of It Will Come to Me.

Gordon’s description of Spangler’s “gargantuan chaotic sprawl, its flatness and rawness, its eternal newness—or at least its failure to age” will be recognizable to anyone who has spent time in Harris County. The Lola Dees Institute, affectionately known as “Lola,” where Ben Blau teaches ethics, has much in common with Houston’s Rice University (formerly known as the William Marsh Rice Institute for the Advancement of Letters, Science and Art), where Gordon teaches. Nirvana, where Ruth drinks in the dullness, is surely modeled after Valhalla, Rice’s underground grad-student pub. Lola is located not far from the Dufour Museum, in Spangler’s Museum District, which seems to be a lightly veiled version of the Menil Collection, in Houston’s Museum District. Before the Category Four hurricane Heather hits Spangler in the novel’s climax, it first wreaks havoc on Survivor’s Island, a double for Galveston Island.

So It Will Come to Me is, if nothing else, a roman à clef offering Houstonians, and particularly members of the extended Rice community, the special thrill of detecting correspondences to familiar landmarks and figures. The standard disclaimer on the book’s copyright page—”Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or events is entirely coincidental.”—will probably be read as disingenuous by students, faculty, administrators and alumni convinced that their genes have been spliced into the novel’s characters.  But you need not be an Owl to feel the work take wing. Gordon’s Lola offers parallels to campus life far beyond the hedges of Rice. This is an academic novel, and it joins the best of the genre (Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, David Lodge’s Small World, Bernard Malamud’s A New Life, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin, Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Jane Smiley’s Moo) in its ability to let Lola stand in for other campuses and other communities. There is no place like Lola—except any other enclave of dreamers, schemers and scoundrels.

Henry Kissinger, who went from Harvard to the Nixon White House, is said to have quipped: “The reason academic politics are so bitter is that so little is at stake.” The point is dramatized in Gordon’s description of a meeting convened to formulate a new mission statement for the Lola Dees Institute. “To catalog the rivalries, grudges, betrayals, lapsed friendships, divorces, feuds, and physical assaults that had severed past connections between the people in this room,” she writes, “would require the kind of mind that finds histories of the Balkans comprehensible.” One does not have to be a Balkanist, or any other sort of academic, to appreciate how pungently these words capture the truth that committees are where bold ideas and original minds go to die.

Lee Wayne Dreddle, Lola’s 14th president, newly installed during a grandiose ceremony, is a former football star, a champion fundraiser, the holder of an MBA, and a chirpy fount of fatuous clichés. Roberta Mitten-Kurz, the humanities dean whom Ben, in the safety of his mind, calls “fat turd,” is the portrait of a petty despot who exercises her modest worldly power by bullying her faculty and staff. She capriciously reassigns Ben’s indispensable administrative assistant Dolores to the sociology department. Hayley Gamache, her replacement, is a needy bundle of frantic incompetence who festoons the philosophy department office with kitschy posters and mobiles of fairies. Absent or late or inept, she renders anyone who tries to challenge her as flustered as she is.

Lurching through the novel like a wayward comet, Hayley is Gordon’s most dazzling character. But It Will Come to Me is not just a bestiary of mutant academics. On his way out of a university he just does not fit into, Charles Johns, who teaches a scandalous course in the philosophy of ecstasy, waxes nostalgic over Lola: “There are some very kind and admirable people here. There are old attachments and loyalties. You need a protected place for bonds like those to form. You need to get out of the wind and rain.”

The idea of the university as sodality and sanctuary finds its most poignant expression during the moments in which Ben, strolling past the offices in his corridor, spies on colleagues deeply engaged in the work that universities are supposed to encourage and advance: independent thought. “Active thinking—thinking as an activity, structured and directed toward an end—was a rare ability, growing rarer. Watching Stuart Dilbert as he thought was like prowling the alleyways of a carnival and catching a glimpse of an off-duty sword-swallower, rehearsing his act in solitude.”

Never far from Ben’s own thoughts, even as he works on a book called The Necessity of Altruism, is the specter of his only son, Isaac, whom neither he nor Ruth has spoken to in almost two years. While friends are eager to convey news of their brilliant progeny’s professional accomplishments, Ben and Ruth harbor the lacerating secret that 24-year-old Isaac never graduated from high school and has never held a job. His mind is muddled and his body is squalid. Wearing a wizard’s cap as he wanders the streets beyond the tidy margins of the manicured campus, he lacks a home and refuses to speak with his parents. Isaac’s estrangement is a blight on the Blau marriage, and it haunts Gordon’s novel like a demented figure out of Zola patrolling the borders of this academic novel. A shadowy therapist named Eusebio Martinez—Ben and Ruth’s only, precarious contact with their child—keeps promising to arrange a meeting with Isaac that never materializes. The therapist nevertheless assures the Blaus that the money he takes from them is spent to Isaac’s benefit.

Parental anxiety is the somber basso continuo accompanying the convocations, meetings, potluck dinners and classes in It Will Come to Me. Ruth and Ben separately brood over their personal responsibility for Isaac’s miserable fate. What kind of parent produces such defective offspring?

But ought not a wise mother recognize and accept the limits of her influence? Besides, Isaac is not the only maternal issue with which Ruth struggles. Even after childbirth and child-rearing divert her creative energies, she labors to bring another book into the world. When celebrity writer Spottiswoode pronounces Ruth’s 500-page manuscript, Whole Lives Devoured, “hobbled,” you can’t help thinking that “stillborn” might be a more appropriate metaphor.

That judgment comes a little more than halfway through Gordon’s novel. By the end, her creative fertility restored, the novel that Ruth seems capable of writing is alive and kicking.

Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio.