Book Review

Schools for Scandal


In 1953’s Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis founded the modern genre of the campus novel on the revelation that humanities academics were obsessive, sex-addled schlemiels, unlucky in love and sometimes, yes, charlatans. David Lodge later built a career hammering that premise home in Britain; Americans–those not permanently cowed by Nabokov’s master parody of the professorate in Pale Fire–have repeated the form to dull cliché, helped along with “research” by this country’s hyper-growth in MFA writing programs and teaching positions within them. Now here comes Karl Iagnemma, in a polished debut story collection, with a fresh twist on the personnel and this news: math and science academics are obsessive, sex-addled schlemiels, unlucky in love and sometimes, yes, charlatans. And they can be very mean.

In these tales of despairing romantics and their questionable science, a forester tests boyfriends’ staying power by eliciting their reactions to her favorite passage on pollination patterns from Woody Plants of North America. A math professor at a small Boston college writes his lover’s dissertation for her, then–after she’s left him for his slimy colleague, and wants to come clean on her theory’s authorship to the math community–he wagers his willingness to help her on the outcome of a Red Sox game. His final, feeble act of revenge is to send his usurper a beloved pair of the ex’s panties, via (of course) inter-campus mail. In the opening story, our narrator–boyfriend of his ex-adviser’s daughter and the author of an unfinished math thesis that gives Iagnemma’s collection its title–spends his days skulking around a depressingly snow-bound Michigan institute, musing on scholarship, local history, and the comforts of sex. Reminiscent of the mad energy of George Saunders’ work (if a bit more reined-in), Iagnemma’s stories can be very funny, driven forward by genius losers’ fallacious hopes for an emotional order that will mirror their disciplines’.

A Ph.D. engineer and full-time robotics researcher at MIT who moonlights writing fiction, Iagnemma knows cold the campus-lit comedian’s stock-in-trade: the irascible and irritating behaviors of the small-bore academic conference, one of which is described as “two hundred men… in a high-schoolish setting of cliques, dirty jokes, and liquor” by Kaye Lindermann, the lovelorn forester, who will end up foolishly sleeping with one of said man-boys before conference’s end. She’s surrounded by puffed-up egos, weaklings hiding behind mirrored aviator shades–which Iagnemma calls, in one of his very best lines, “the international symbol of jackasshood.” Elsewhere, in the dismal setting of an Akron auditorium with sick-colored carpet, an attack on the assumptions behind a conference presentation evokes in the crowd murmurs likened to those at a public execution; and it’s understood that the questioner has now made his own work fair game for future “mathematical headhunters.”

Gravity’s Rainbow or Infinite Jest this is not. Unlike other recent polymaths of American literature such as Pynchon, Powers, Vollmann, or Wallace, Iagnemma (who works by day on, of all things, planetary rovers) manages to keep his characters’ and his own feats of mind mainly in the background. He focuses instead on the old storytelling materials of bad manners, public disgrace, and charged love triangles. He is at heart a sociologist of geekdom, having fun with the tendency of smart people to do mean, petty, and dumb things, particularly when wounded by passion. You needn’t understand math at all to understand these characters, who have, behind their prodigious projects, very small and familiar needs–for attention, affection, acceptance. In fact, the stretched epiphany at the end of “Zilkowski’s Theorem,” when the professor with the Red Sox bet sits in a church and reflects on math’s failed attempts to prove religious faith, struck me as a rare false moment in a book full of character arcs clearly and realistically constructed. (That story won Iagnemma a place in Best American Short Stories 2000 though, so what do I know.)

Iagnemma does seem to know he’s mining a deep vein in American culture, begun long before tenure and departmental politics, present in our literature since Hawthorne’s mad scientists and love-struck Fausts. Half of the eight stories in this collection have historical settings, mainly the frontier wilderness in and around Iagnemma’s native Michigan in the early and mid-19th century. These stories evoke hard lives spent in small cabins and frigid garrisons that are oddly proleptic of the 21st century’s uninviting university offices. The contemporary character types are there, too, in dark, unpredictable forms: a phrenologist doubting the truthfulness of his theories while chasing down a bald seductress who’s stolen his model skulls; an ore miner who constructs geometry proofs by night, at the risk of alienating his God-fearing wife; and an early researcher into the science of human digestion whose wife grows more and more intrigued by a handsome young Frenchman with a hole in his stomach. (The Frenchman is kept in their back room for observation and experimentation.)

These stories save the book from a displeasing sameness of academic terrain, and they showcase Iagnemma’s ability to recreate outdated science and convert his research into vivid little sensual details–a sweating Pole helping to carry an injured man from a mine, guiding the ankles “like he was steering a wheelbarrow”; or a settler’s gunshot cracking over the water “like a beaver slapping its tail on a smooth pond.” We sense in these stories, too, Iagnemma’s broad appreciation for the paradoxes that come with placing the quest for knowledge in harsh historical circumstance. This is especially true in “The Indian Agent,” the most gripping story in the book, based in fact and told in tense, terse diary form by a man named Hobart, amateur ethnologist and an agent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs on the Michigan Peninsula in 1821. Recording his sensitive observations of the Chippewa while carrying out government policies designed to displace them, Hobart is a complex combination of reluctant servant and curious investigator, trying to do what’s right amid forces stronger than his will.

At times, Iagnemma’s generally comedic tone, adjusted for the gravitas of history, can teeter on the edge of melodrama, as though lightheartedness about love and science was invented after 1900. He’s at his best as a writer when he’s swiftly and ironically sketching a love affair gone bad, in one page taking us from shared Indian take-out and “first non-solo orgasm” to intense disdain for a lover’s burping and, then, a bad fight and a call to the police. My favorite of his stories may be the slight, fast-paced comedy titled “The Confessional Approach,” about a young, ultra-lefty Detroit couple, Freddy and Judith, who fall in love over protest politics and go (why not?) into the mannequin-making business. Now out of love, their business about to collapse for Freddy’s unwillingness to sell their product to a Republican-run shooting range (for target practice, naturally), they drive about aimlessly before parking in front of a store, where the nostalgic Judith admires her handiwork:

It’s still there, standing in the shop window–the first mannequin we ever sold. It’s wearing purple sunglasses and blue bathing trunks, flip-flops on its club feet. Even from thirty feet away I can see flaws in the potatolike head–my first head–and the difficult, knotted shoulder that reduced me to tears. Freddy slips the car into park, leans across the bench seat, and kisses me firmly on the lips. I’m too shocked to kiss him back. He pulls back and searches my face–grimly, the way a doctor examines a troubling X-ray–and I find myself holding my breath. Finally he turns back toward the mannequin. It’s standing on a scatter of sand, beside a pink beach towel. Its rough wooden thighs look fittingly suntanned. It stares at us blankly, like a lifeguard surveying deep water.

It’s a simple moment, simply told, with no math or science, no history other than the personal, and a fairly transparent metaphor at its heart. But it’s one of my favorites in this promising story collection, a funny moment full of Iagnemma’s absurdist sense for how human romantics–empty-headed to the last–keep trying to subvert the empirical evidence and shape lovers to their own ends.

Jeffrey Severs is a writer in Austin.