The Lecturer's Tale by James Hynes

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The Lecturer’s Tale

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In The Lecturer’s Tale, Nelson Humboldt's academic career has stalled; he has just been fired from teaching freshman English in a department so dominated by trendy theorists that in some courses students are forbidden to use the word literature and where the most prominent scholars never teach a course at all. Nelson is an anomaly here; he likes students and loves literature, but he has harbored hopes for academic advancement and he has a family to support. Then Nelson is involved in a freak accident which severs his index finger. When it is reattached, he discovers that by touching others, he can make them do whatever he wishes.

Like Faust, Nelson at first hopes to use his power for good. He gets his job back, and he attempts to help his office mate, the timorous Vita Deonne, get tenure by sabotaging three candidates for her position. Like Faust, he ultimately succumbs to the lure of power.

The objects of author James Hynes’s satire will be recognizable to most academics in English departments. They range from the department chairman Anthony Pescacane (who dresses like a mobster and studies popular culture), to Penelope O (who holds the Hugh Hefner Chair in Sexuality Studies). In fact, academic concerns with sex and gender studies, affirmative action, and political correctness all receive satiric skewering along with all the characters in this novel, from literature-loathing lesbian professors to straight white men who long to teach only “the canon” they studied forty years ago, a canon which supplies the novel's abundant literary allusions. Finally the supernatural solves the mess by obliterating the department and privatizing the university, allowing Nelson to return to telling students about literature.