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Zeno Was Here

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

John McEvoy, an English teacher at a British boys’ school, leads a prosaic existence. Even though he has never cheated on his wife, she is so insanely jealous that he finds himself accounting for every moment of his time whenever he comes home late. Recently he has begun lying as a matter of course: His recollection of day-to-day events is simply too sketchy to satisfy her, and the best solution seems to be to have an elaborate alibi ready at all times. Careerwise, the high point of the past year was his participation in a locally televised debate on school censorship, in which John argued in defense of dangerous contemporary literature such as THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. The sad fact is that he has not read anything more recent in more than twenty years.

Then, unexpectedly, a contemporary novel arrives in the mail, a garishly jacketed book entitled ACID TEST that describes a young woman’s experience with unscrupulous LSD therapy in a mental institution in the 1960’s. The book has been sent to McEvoy by an old girlfriend whom he barely remembers. In an accompanying note, she claims that one of the “villains” in the novel--a self-centered attendant whose callousness results in a patient’s suicide--is in fact modeled on him.

McEvoy did work at a mental hospital in the 1960’s, and a patient there did commit suicide, but he refuses to believe that he was in any way responsible. Nevertheless, he reads the book again and again, hoping to find some conclusive proof that it is strictly a work of fiction. The more vehemently he denies the likeness, however, the more irresponsible his own behavior becomes. He lets his work slide, ignores his wife, and eventually begins seeing another woman. Perhaps the fictional portrait is accurate after all.

ZENO WAS HERE is an unusually successful example of metafiction (a genre that has known fewer than its share of successes). Metafiction takes the fiction-making process as its subject: Typically, the novel’s hero is a novelist himself. Current literary theory, however, views fiction as a collaboration between the writer and the reader, and Jan Mark--known mainly as a children’s author--cleverly shifts the focus from writing to “close reading.” On one level, the book is a straightforward domestic comedy; on another, it is a delicious parody of the post-modern critical agenda. This well-written and multifaceted novel of ideas will appeal especially to armchair philosophers.