The Visiting Professor

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Chaos may be the order of the world and may even be the name of God himself. THE VISITING PROFESSOR offers this as a message if it offers any message at all through its subtle comedy.

Lemuel Falk is a Soviet professor of mathematics specializing in the study of randomness. In his search for pure randomness he has encountered only chaos, or seeming randomness that can in fact be predicted. Each year he has applied for an exit visa from the Soviet Union; when it is granted, he panics, because he did not truly want to leave but only wanted to monitor the randomness of the Soviet government. He concludes that if the government is allowing him to leave, it must be time for him to go.

Falk accepts a visiting professorship in the United States at the Institute for Advanced Interdisciplinary Chaos-Related Studies at appropriately named Backwater University. Told to improve upon his self-inflicted haircut before beginning professorial duties, he goes to the recommended barber, Occasional Rain Morgan, also known as “Tender To” because that sign appears in the window of her rented space. It is significant that the phrase appears backwards to those looking out the window. Much of the relationship that develops between Morgan and Falk, who is twice her age, requires an unusual perspective to be understood. Littell emphasizes this point by having both part titles, “Tender To” and “Ambulance,” appear as mirror images.

Falk quickly gains notoriety as a result of participation in a demonstration against a nuclear waste dump near Backwater. Agents of various governments, as well as of organized crime, begin making offers of employment, hoping that he will apply his knowledge of code-breaking on their behalf. Falk also takes an interest in a series of apparently random murders because he does not believe in randomness, even though he is searching for it.

Littell nicely ties up the chaotic events of Falk’s world by the novel’s conclusion, leaving the reader with an impression of having been submerged in chaos but having learned something indefinable from it. Falk himself expresses such a feeling, as does his housemate, a rabbi who comes to believe that chaos is the true name of Yahweh.