John R. Coyne, Jr.
At first [The Occupation] seems just another of that depressing ruck of academic novels written to show us what university life is really like. Summarize one and you've summarized them all. The narrator is inevitably a professor of English in the throes of premature male menopause, his world crumbling around his ears, his wife hostile, the coeds after whom he lusts—and unfortunately, after years of prudent chasing finally catches—disillusioned. Nothing makes sense, the SYSTEM is meaningless, the world is meaningless, it's all a bad cosmic joke.
And superficially, that's the way this one seems to be heading. But somewhere along the line you realize that Caute understands all that, and as you penetrate the deliberately obscure surrealistic plot (no academic worth his PhD would be caught dead laying down a straight plot line these days) and the scenic pop pornography, you realize that Caute's saying something important about the nature of academic man and something important about the condition of the contemporary novel.
The central character, like Caute, is a youngish with-it socialist British academic who spends a year teaching at a large university in New York. As he lusts after one of his students, he thinks a great deal, in typical academic fashion, about the meaning of it all and his place in the scheme of things. Constant preoccupation with self, the disease of the academic, finally leads to breakdown, and the center of the novel consists of scenes occurring either in his office or in his mind or both in which he argues with sitting-in New Left students.
All clear? Of course not. They may be sitting-in in his mind. Or they may be sitting-in in his office. Or his mind may be his office. Or his office may symbolize his mind. It's that kind of plot, and that's why The Occupation will be read primarily by English majors, faculty wives married to English professors, reviewers for the New York Review and the Prairie Schooner, residents of New York City and other exotics. And that's a shame, because they probably won't get the message. The estrangement of the academy from the real world seems almost to parallel the estrangement of serious novelists from the general reading public. Since its flowering in the eighteenth century, the novel has been a form that has attempted to dramatize the lives of real people doing real things for real reasons in real settings. But at some very recent point thinkers decided that there was no perceivable reality, that life was jagged and fractured, that one man's reality was another man's illusion. And so the only serious study for any serious writer became his own apprehension of his own individual consciousness. And the quirkier that consciousness, the better.
This total turning inward was antithetical to everything the novel stood for, its primary artistic function having been to survey manners and morals within a coherent social structure. As a result, the novel has steadily lost its broad-based readership. The great novelists appealed to people across a variety of social and educational boundaries, but today those novels that critics find "significant" appeal to very limited groups. (pp. 40-1)
And so what's left? How about sex? There's something that academics do in pretty much the same way everyone else does, perhaps the last common link between the philistines and the academic. Caute's professor has nothing much to do, so there's a great deal of time to fantasize about it. So let's all of us—all those people who do society's day-to-day work but who never appear in serious novels any more—and all those academics—let's get together and let's hear it for sex. Moan moan pant pant hiccup. And to hell with the novel. Us academics have taken care of poetry. Who reads contemporary poetry? And we've pretty well killed the short story. Now let's finish off the novel. It was always a bourgeois genre anyhow. Pant pant hiccup. (p. 41)
John R. Coyne, Jr., "Pant, Pant, Moan, Hiccup," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1973; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016), Vol. XKV, No. 1, January 5, 1973, pp. 40-1.