Changing Places and Small World, by David Lodge

During Hurricane Sandy, I read two novels by David Lodge. Both are in his “campus trilogy” of professor novels. Changing Places is about a high-powered American and a nebbishy Brut (both English professors) who swap places and whose lives begin to resemble each other oddly. And Small World is about a bunch of professors (including the two from the first book) who fly around and encounter each other at a bunch of academic conferences.

The campus novel has to be the most insular and self-absorbed of all the genres of literary fiction. The lives of college professors are fundamentally undramatic. First you’re in school for a zillion years, then you basically stay in one place until you die. I mean, if you can’t find a job (or aren’t granted tenure), then that’s pretty dramatic, but then you’re not a professor anymore.

Bad professor novels center around adultery; good ones center around the silliness of departmental politics and academic maneuvering. Lodge’s novels are both good and bad, since there’s tons of adultery in them. And the adultery is pretty much the only thing that isn’t ridiculed. The books really do seem to believe in: a) soul-sucking, empty marriages; and b) life-affirming adulterous relationships that reinvigorate a man’s emotional energies. And those are just two things that I cannot take seriously. I mean, you can have adultery in your novel. I won’t necessarily stop reading it. In real life, I’m sure that adultery continues to remain a major concern for a huge percentage of people. But, in fiction, it makes me suspicious.

However, the good part about these novels were their surprising experiments with form. Changing Places switches forms several times. First it’s told as straight narrative, then as an exchange of letters, then as a series of newspaper articles, and then as a screenplay. Since the book is replete with theorizing about the nature of the novel, all of this fits together in kind of a weird way (especially given the book’s absolutely perfect ending) to showcase the arbitrariness of the novel.

But the experiment in Small World is, if anything, even subtler and more interesting. The subtitle of the book is : An Academic Romance, and a recurring motif throughout the book are the differences between the prose romance and the modern novel. The book itself is structured as a romance, with fanciful situations and a hero who overcomes an arbitrary series of obstacles in search of a distant object of desire. And for most of the book, I wondered to myself, “This is nice and all, but where is it going.” But the ending really does wrap it all up perfectly in about twenty pages.

   Aside from my eye-rolls about the adultery, the novels were a lot of fun. I loved the characters. The main ones are Philip Swallow (who’s a Brit who got his professorship purely through his facility with exams; he’s never published a book) and Morris Zapp (the world’s best Jane Austen scholar (and, later, a convert to postmodernism). He can’t stand Jane Austen). And the settings were quite a bit of fun too. There’s a send-up of Berkeley and another send-up of a college in a grimy British industrial town.

The whole series reeks of the sixties and seventies. The first one has recurring sideplots dealing with free love and campus radicalism, and the second one goes off on a tear about structuralism and post-modernism. But so what? The sixties were fun times.

Waiting for the hurricane; Wired magazine; David Lodge; and more submissions stuff

This is the kind of ship that’s been getting sunk by hurricanes since well before the climate started changing

So, the hurricane is bearing down on me. I’m at my parent’s home in DC. Since my Baltimore apartment is below street level, it’s not impossible that it’s filling with water even as we speak (though hopefully that’s not true…) I fully expect that at some point we’ll lose power here in DC, since we’ve lost power for much less severe storms than this. But my parents have a generator, so we should be fine-ish.

But I thought I’d throw out a blog entry right now, while I still have internet. Umm…stuff is good. Now, I believe in climate change, but I also believe that you can’t really point to any specific storm or event and be like, “This is climate change in action.” That’s a judgment that can really only be made by statisticians who can look at the data over time and conclude that storms, over time, are getting larger and more intense. Climate change is a trend; a storm is just a datapoint.

But I will say that I’ve never before had to flee a hurricane. And it does seem like there’ve been a lot low-probability weather events in DC lately, like the derecho thunderstorms that left the area without power over the summer or the Snowmageddon that crippled us back in January of 2010. Part of that is just that I notice weather more nowadays (as compared to when I was growing up), since when it happens, I actually have to do things about it.

But anyway, I was thinking about all this extreme weather as I was driving to Baltimore, and I was like, “You know, this is kind of what climate change would feel like.” It wouldn’t be stuff like living in domes or behind sea-walls, it’d just be these things that happen: hurricanes and power outages and heat waves and snow storms and floods. You just deal with each one and you go on living your life. But, of course, each one kills a few people and wrecks a few lives and does a few billion dollars worth of damage. And that slowly accumulates (along with the other, more chronic impacts of climate change) and life is, in some small way, worse than it would otherwise have been. It’s a far cry from some crazy Population Bomb type scenario where 90% of the Earth’s population dies, but it’s certainly not particularly optimal.

 

In other news, I read an issue of Wired today. It was, err…good. But it was a compilation issue: articles taken from magazines throughout the decade–so it was easy to spot some really interesting trends in Wired. For instance, Wired runs a lot of articles about entrepreneurs who get diagnosed with a disease (or are somehow affected by it) and then use their business savvy (and millions of dollars) to revolutionize research into that disease. It’s become a slightly-ridiculous Silicon Valley trope, to the point where I wonder if millionaires feel ashamed if they get diagnosed with a disease and just go to the world’s best doctor and do what he tells them to do.

Yes, my reading has been light lately. I’ve also been reading David Lodge novels. Over the weekend, I read the first of his “Campus Trilogy”. They’re really light and fun. But they’re also about adultery, in this way that’s almost kind of serious, but is, to me, totally laughable. Adultery is such a complex narrative trope and has so much moral and emotional and cultural weight and has been treated so many times and in such a stylized manner, that it’s hard to remember that it’s a real thing that actually forms the emotional crux of peoples’ lives.

 

And finally, I’ve continued submitting to literary journals. I’ve made a godawful high number of submissions to lit journals in the past six days, and I’m seriously considering submitting to another dozen more once I have access to my printer again (so far, I’ve only been sending out electronic submissions). I’ve realized that payment is an extremely imperfect way to figure out which journal to submit to (since payment information is kept so secret), but just googling “ranking of literary journals” brought to what look like two very fine indexes. The first ranks journals by the number of stories they’ve published that’ve been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. And the second ranks them by the number of stories they’ve published that’ve received mentions in the Best American Short Stories. Now, obviously, neither of these is that great a measure, since they’re basically indexes of the opinion and reading habits of a very tiny and homogenous number of jurors and editors. But still, at least it’s something.