In late 1989, The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a profile of Joan Rodman of Venice, California, a psychologist whose specialty was doctoral candidates in the humanities.1 Through group and individual therapy, she helped those graduate students who had completed coursework and other Ph.D. requirements but were struggling with the final hurdle—in other words, ABDs (for “all but dissertation”). Having treated hundreds of ABDs, Rodman was able to make some generalizations about fast and slow dissertation finishers. The fast ones tended to have healthy, supportive relationships with their advisers and significant others. The slow ones often had experienced loss of a parent or loved one; close relationships were missing, and feelings of anxiety stemming from childhood still ate away at them.
The doctoral dissertation, which culminates the student phase and launches the professor phase, required more than intelligence and hard work. A healthy ego, armed against doubt and anxiety, and a willingness to confront one’s own history equipped candidates for the life transition, or paradigm shift, as grad students like to say. “Many students need to transform themselves if they are to produce,” reported the psychologist. “You find a question in life or in yourself, and you literally have to rework yourself to come up with a solution.”
Picture a group therapy session of slow-finishing fictional ABDs today. Not only can’t they complete their dissertations, but they’re having trouble coping with the example set by those overachievers Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey, hero and heroine of Possession: A Romance, A. S. Byatt’s 1990 novel. Roland and Maud not only solve a great Victorian literary mystery and fall in love with each other, but they also have finished their dissertations. In typical overachiever fashion, the best-selling, critically acclaimed Possession went on to become a film starring Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Gathered at our group session, the protagonists of five recent novels try to come to grips with their various procrastinations. There’s Chris Bayliss of Alan Wall’s spooky, heartfelt The Lightning Cage, a divinity school dropout who lives in his recently deceased mother’s house. For years, Bayliss has been procrastinating instead of finishing his dissertation on an eighteenth-century poet. Next to Bayliss sits Elizabeth Mann of Jenny Davidson’s Heredity, polymathically perverse and obsessed with another eighteenth-century figure, the criminal Jonathan Wild—and other bad boys. Beside her is the charmingly desperate art historian Alejandro Ballesteros of Juan Manuel de Prada’s The Tempest, struggling to persuade the experts to believe his theory about a Renaissance painting. In addition to the trauma of his mother’s suicide and the insecurity he feels about his blue-collar background, Joe Roper of Sarah Smith’s engrossing novel Chasing Shakespeares has romantic problems: his research partner left academia to become a nun, and now he’s mixed up with a movie producer’s daughter who believes Shakespeare’s plays were written by the Earl of Oxford. Finally, there’s Helmut Sanchez, the only one in the room who can claim to be in a healthy relationship, but the antihero of Sergio Troncoso’s The Nature of Truth is filled with hatred for his tyrannical boss, a Yale professor whose esteemed work on German moral philosophy glides over his own monstrous past.
It’s gripping, but also a little depressing, a little ridiculous, the way these intelligent people struggle in their “attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us.” This is smarty-pants Byatt again—actually the epigraph to Possession taken from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s preface to The House of Seven Gables. It could easily serve as the epigraph to all of the novels reviewed here, if they needed any help finding epigraphs, which they most certainly do not. The protagonists and their authors are all attempting to connect the present and the past. Among all the arts, the novel, with its shifting points of view and room for digression, makes an excellent tool for performing this essential function. In different ways, all of the authors follow Byatt in showing how scholarly research interrogates the stories that society tells itself about itself—and how serious scholarship can turn the scholar inside out.
Chris Bayliss counts among his travails a mother with Alzheimer’s, a crooked boss, an antisocial girlfriend, and a case of whiplash he got from crashing a car while driving too fast in order to forget about the preceding. In The Lightning Cage, he seeks to evade the shambles he has made of his life by immersing it in the writings and biography of poet Richard Pelham, and he sells his mother’s furniture to pay for rare books, letting his hair and beard grow and the dust accumulate on every horizontal surface of a once tidy home. A fictional contemporary of Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson, Pelham wrote visionary poems between bouts of alcoholism and madness; the title refers to a primitive device for administering electroshock therapy. Chapters alternate between Chris’s life and Pelham’s, and things start getting strange and/or making sense when the two start to overlap. Taking detours into demonic possession and New Age cults, Chris chases after bygone times as fast as his feet will carry him. Evasion leads him full circle, back to confronting his own demons.
Each chapter begins with epigraphs from texts real and invented, echoing Possession and John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), which doesn’t have a graduate student
but which belongs, along with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980), to the extended family of historical fiction for people who care about authenticity.2 The quest for authenticity explains,
I believe, the abundance of epigraphs, as if these snippets from hoary volumes not only set the tone for the chapter to come but imbue it with the scent of leather bindings. The scent helps the authors to pass off their inventions as authentic antiques, when in fact they are “antiqued” contemporary novels with unmistakably contemporary mores: casual sex, pop culture references, that kind of thing. Perhaps the particular kind of nostalgia you find here—a longing not for the decade of your teenage years but for those of your great-great-great grandparents—is itself a contemporary phenomenon.
Naturally, the old books in The Lightning Cage, in a pattern that holds for all these novels, prove talismanic, instrumental in the effort to traverse time. “When I held that book I took the poet’s hand across the centuries,” Chris says of a first edition of Pelham’s Psalms of Silence. Eventually he gets help from a crusty old book dealer named Stamford Tewk, another kind of link to the past, albeit a slightly closer past, though just as encrusted with historical merit. Tewk knew Lucian Freud, Piet Mondrian, and T. S. Eliot. (“‘Ah,’ he said, smiling, ‘old Tom. Now there was a grave, gracious and tormented man.’”) Fitting the ABD fiction genre like a leather-bound volume in a slipcase, the novel concludes when the hero goes from reading old books to writing a new one. “So much of it is tied up with things I thought I’d finally escaped from,” Chris explains, sounding very much like someone in group therapy.
In Chasing Shakespeares, the steady, hardworking Joe Roper comes across a letter permeated with the “smell of centuries,” purporting to be written by the man himself. The only problem is that it disavows all the plays and sonnets. Skeptical but thorough, he agrees to accompany the wealthy, whip-smart, and, of course, gorgeous Posy Gould on a trip to London to check the facts. Gould is an Oxfordian, which means she believes that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare. Her ambitions go beyond finding a dissertation topic: “We could write a book about finding the letter. Give lectures. And that’s just the beginning. The book. The movie from the book.” Joe initially sympathizes with Shakespeare of Stratford, an amateur from the sticks trying to make it in the big time, while Posy identifies with the privileged, misbehaving Oxford. It’s a pattern Sarah Smith borrows from Possession, in which Randolph Henry Ash’s passionless mid-Victorian marriage resonates for Roland in the 1980s, just as Isidore LaMotte’s determination to remain isolated from the male of the species hits home for the beautiful Maud.
Joe’s skepticism about Oxford deteriorates, and he becomes convinced that to award authorship to the man from Stratford is to uphold the corrupt status quo. It’s impossible not to cheer for him as he roots around the vagaries of Elizabethan society. Chasing Shakespeares doesn’t go back in time the way The Lightning Cage does but rather tours the underbelly of literary scholarship—the autodidacts, conspiracy theorists, and genealogy buffs whom the academy ignores but who go through most of the same motions as legitimate researchers. However many laughs Sarah Smith scores off these chumps, the wealth of historical texture compels you to check the plays and the footnotes (posted on www.chasingshakespeares.com) for yourself.
The conviction that anybody at all can become a Shakespearean, or, indeed, become Shakespeare, goes to the heart of Roper’s troubles. The son of a hardware store manager, Joe labors away in the archives at Northeastern University, deep in the shadow of Harvard. He dreads the prospect of pouring his life’s work into an obscure scholarly edition but sees little possibility for making a major impact on the field. In London, he catches an expert on forgeries noticing “the difference between his suit and my jacket, the scars across the backs of my knuckles.” (Joe got these blue-collar stigmata from his job installing windows.) The letter torments him. How can Joe tell a forgery from the original? He feels like a forgery himself.
Forgeries appear with considerable frequency in ABD fiction, jeopardizing the heroes’ scholarly quests and reminding them that not everyone in the academic universe has pure motives. The proliferation and eventual exposure of forged manuscripts, paintings, and autographs can be read as a kind of insecure irony—a mindset well known by anyone familiar with an ABD—since the authors are themselves perpetrating frauds when they present “evidence” of Shakespeare’s true identity or introduce “forgotten” literary figures who hobnobbed with Pope and Johnson. Does uncovering forgeries make their own stand out less or more?
A forger figures prominently in Juan Manuel de Prada’s novel (translated from the Spanish by Paul Antill). His murder is witnessed by the Spanish art historian Alejandro Ballesteros visiting Venice (in Italy, not California), the perennially flooded, deeply corrupt hometown of The Tempest (the Giorgione painting, not the Shakespeare play). Determined to prove his theory that the artist based the enigmatic work on Roman mythology, Alejandro meets countless frustrations at the hands of three women—a hotel manager who once strangled her husband to death, an art conservator who may be having an affair with her adopted father, and an oversexed collector married to a clueless hotelier. Prada takes obvious delight in relating his protagonist’s repulsion: “I kissed her withered neck—a kiss in every furrow—as if I were trying to determine her age by a sort of carbon-14 test.” The author can hardly finish a sentence in which the word thighs appears without also including cottage cheese.
Alejandro’s problems with sex, which turn out to overlap with his problems with art history, come down to the sterility of his worldview. He keeps his distance from the sordid goings-on in Venice, including a possible conservator-forger alliance and a thoroughly unerotic carnival orgy, just as he dismisses the “religion of feeling and emotion” that is forcefully apparent in the painting that has consumed him for years. When Alejandro isn’t being derided by a curator for his “historicist” methods, he’s pouring salt in his own emotional wounds. “I am a defunct adolescent,” he fumes, “or a prematurely aged man.” Again, this mindset tallies with the perpetual graduate students I’ve known, but it’s a curiously anti-intellectual view for a novel that’s rife with learning and lore. The passages on the origin of the long-nosed plague doctor mask are themselves quite admirable as scholarship.
The Tempest is such a delight that you first overlook its contradictions; as they pile up, you realize what a marvel it is. Prada makes an apparently clear distinction between creative art and academic work: “Critical insight is the refuge and the alibi of those like me who cannot keep up with the demands and tribulations of real talent,” but putting the words in the scholar’s mouth undermines their credibility. Claiming that his research trip to Venice was a failure, Alejandro explains, “The fault always lies with the one who makes the journey without stopping to think first of the disruption it will cause to his life”; he could just as easily be talking about the risks an artist takes with his or her life. If he had spoken those words in a group therapy session, the psychologist would have congratulated him on recognizing how dissertations are inherently creative projects.
The flip side of the forger in an ABD novel is the student-connoisseur, able to distinguish real from counterfeit intuitively, without resorting to carbon-14 or fashionable theories. While this emphasis sometimes greases a slide into the mystical, it permits the novelists to show off their protagonists’ talents without reproducing entire chapters of their brilliant but unfinished dissertations. If Joe has a knack for recognizing the flow of Shakespeare’s verse in a volume otherwise attributed and Alejandro can spot an authentic Renaissance altarpiece from ten paces, Elizabeth Mann, heroine of Jenny Davidson’s Heredity, possesses yet another kind of connoisseur’s gift: She knows a good lay from his skeleton. In the Royal College of Surgeons, staring at the bones of master criminal Jonathan Wild, she determines, “I find Jonathan Wild sexy. I check him out for a while, stirring only when the curator wanders towards me.”
Elizabeth doesn’t have a dissertation to finish, but the way she throws herself into the eighteenth century, spending all of her free time in the library of the British Museum rather than writing the travel book she’s been assigned—and the way it all ends up relating to her own uncomfortable past—make Heredity an honorary ABD novel. She confesses she’s “addicted to expert knowledge”; also, she has enough bad habits to qualify for graduate school. At the request of her friend Dahlia, an insightful and well-adjusted fashion magazine editor, she drafts The Seven Habits of Highly Self-Destructive People:
- Letting your recycling pile up
- Shopping on credit
- Drinking on an empty stomach
- Screening phone calls
- Calling yourself a loser a hundred times a day
- Having a secret affair with a married man
Make that eight: She also leaves precious books facedown on the table, which damages the spines. And then there’s nine: reading trashy books like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Two of Heredity’s epigraphs come from John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus!
Having just read Jurassic Park, Elizabeth decides that there is a scientific possibility that if some of the criminal’s DNA remains in his bones, she can bear Wild’s child. With the help of the obstetrician Gideon Streetcar (see number seven, above), she takes steps to realize her plan, which in an obscure but certainly twisted way is designed to exact revenge on her obstetrician father. By chance, a sealed lot from an auction she attends with Gideon contains the narrative of Jonathan Wild’s wife Mary, and the novel is interlarded with Mary’s accounts of London in the eighteenth century, all of which makes Elizabeth especially close to the object of her affection. “I think more about the past than the present,” she says in an admission that is also a boast.
Let’s back up to that second habit—procrastination. Why don’t people finish their dissertations? Why let a promising topic grow stale while the very present flits away from us? The Venice psychologist hit on one answer when she identified the personal transformation students need to undergo, but another obstacle is the problem of irrelevance. It’s difficult to keep one foot planted in everyday life and the other in a scholarly topic from a century long gone, so you need to trick yourself into making the scholarly topic a part of your everyday life. In the Chronicle of Higher Education article, Rodman reports some success in compelling a graduate student to book herself into a four-star hotel; knowing that each night of procrastination is costing her $250 means that there are consequences for her inaction. I’ve heard of another therapist forcing her African American patient to meet deadlines by threatening to make a donation to the KKK every time a deadline was missed.3
Conceivably, the relative freedom of the novel form accommodates all the historical and personal matters that emerge during research, allowing the frustrated dissertation writer to become a novel writer. Completing a novel about dissertation procrastination, however, can be just as daunting a task as completing a dissertation. Even if the novel is taken up as a way of procrastinating instead of working on that dissertation, it’s still something else that has to be finished (unlike, say, a pitcher of beer, even though that also has to be finished). My point is that these books are not written by the underachievers, as you might be led to believe by their sympathetically drawn underachieving protagonists, but by the overachievers. I don’t know about Prada or Wall, but Jenny Davidson has degrees from Harvard and Yale. Sarah Smith was a Fulbright scholar who got her Ph.D. in English from Harvard. Sergio Troncoso, another Fulbright recipient, studied international relations and philosophy at Yale.
Troncoso’s The Nature of Truth focuses on Werner Hopfgartner, professor of German literature at Yale, and the havoc he wreaks on the lives of an insecure female graduate student from Iowa, a dandyish librarian, and Helmut Sanchez, the research assistant Hopfgartner exploits to the point of expecting him to draft his articles. Although most of the action takes place in the German department, this isn’t a campus comedy of manners but a suspenseful psychological thriller in the tradition of Crime and Punishment. Helmut is the bookish Raskolnikov, tormented by morality questions when he discovers a letter his boss published in the 1960s, “Why I Am Neither Guilty Nor Ashamed.” Further research, including a trip to the Benedictine monastery where The Name of the Rose takes place (a nice tip of the mortarboard to Eco), confirms suspicions of a particularly heinous Nazi past. Troncoso’s gift for rendering sexual disgust in prose rivals Prada’s. A description of a tryst with a graduating senior focuses on the professor’s “gray and shiny head attached to her chest like a lamprey.”
Despite Helmut’s revulsion for Hopfgartner, he manages to work overtime on his “compilation”—some kind of ghostwritten treatise that will cap off an illustrious career—but as the novel goes on, his researches fail to help him make sense of the dilemma he faces, and his thirst grows for swift justice. “Yes, justice! Real action! Real morality!” Helmut seethes. “What was not wanted was another philosophical seminar of nothing, from nothing, for the purpose of nothing.” He plans a drastic act that will connect the present and the past with a trail of blood.
The Nature of Truth follows close on the heels of John Banville’s Shroud. Both novels fictionalize the circumstances surrounding the 1987 revelation that Paul de Man, the influential scholar who turned Yale’s comparative literature department into a bastion of deconstructionism, had published a series of pro-Nazi articles decades earlier. The findings occasioned a reconsideration of de Man, the deconstructionist methods he practiced, and the state of the humanities in America and Europe. Those who thought nihilism and relativism had eclipsed serious scholarship could point to passages like this from de Man’s Allegories of Reading (1979): “The experience always exists simultaneously as fictional discourse and as empirical event and it is never possible to decide which of the two possibilities is the right one. The indecision makes it possible to excuse the bleakest of crimes.” Deconstructionists argued that their literary strategies were still useful, even liberating, despite the baggage.
Whatever you think of de Man, you will be comforted to know that the accessible and enjoyable novels reviewed here do not derive from his knotty theorems. A more likely influence is Stephen Greenblatt, University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard and founder of the so-called New Historicism. “My deep, ongoing interest,” Greenblatt has said, “is in the relation between literature and history, the process through which certain remarkable works of art are at once embedded in a highly specific life-world and seem to pull free of that life-world. I am constantly struck by the strangeness of reading works that seem addressed, personally and intimately, to me, and yet were written by people who crumbled to dust long ago.”4 His Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980) and Shakespearean Negotiations (1988) paint sympathetic portraits of figures from the English Renaissance by focusing on the meals, dress, and beliefs that constituted their world. The details in his books would make any novelist drool.
Whatever else these five novels are about, they’re about professionalism and how best to meet the ethical and technical demands of the academic profession in the face of extraordinary, sometimes supernatural, circumstances. At this point I’d like to make a somewhat fanciful connection to a kindred genre, the nursing novel of World War II, admittedly far removed from academia and not directly influential on the ABD novel. Nevertheless, the comparison brings something into relief about these earnest researchers and their struggles to root out counterfeits and to do something that matters in the real world. The nurse novel, exemplified by such titles as Penny and Pam, Nurse and Cadet and Cherry Ames, Army Nurse (both 1944), featured young women looking for some way to pitch in: “‘I’d like to do something for the war—something big and—’ She hesitated. Penny feared she was going to say ‘impressive,’ but she didn’t; instead she said ‘—real. Nursing would be that, wouldn’t it?’”5
The nurses go on to seize the opportunity for heroism beyond the line of service. They don’t just provide medical attention; they investigate the sabotage of factories and expose Nazi spy rings. Catching spies was something women could do because they didn’t have to do it on the front lines, and woman’s intuition didn’t hurt, either. These enormously popular books weren’t read just by nurses but by anybody with some nurse in them, the underappreciated, duty-bound women left behind. In the same spirit, ABD novels aren’t just for graduate students but for anybody who still cares about getting to the truth in a world that seems to prize subterfuge, anyone who longs to discover how to make graduate work or any old day job into something relevant. That is, anybody with a brain.
1. Peter Monaghan, “Nothing To Do with Brightness.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 6, 1989
2. Two other recent best sellers exemplify the genre: The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, about the murder of a Louvre curator, and, Matthew Pearl’s Dante Club, in which Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes team up to catch an Inferno-besotted killer. Distinct from standard historical fiction, which is normally just a pretext for sword fights and ripped bodices, authentic historical fiction draws heavily on documentary evidence and uses fact as a launching point for “what if” scenarios. Nicholas Meyer’s Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1974), for example, focuses on cocaine use in the nineteenth century and pairs Sigmund Freud with Sherlock Holmes.
3. Thanks to Jenny Tobias at the library of the Museum of Modern Art for the Chronicle article and the KKK anecdote.
4. Quoted in The Harvard University Gazette, September 21, 2000.
5. For more on the nursing novel and some quaint book covers, see “Patriotism and Propaganda in Girls’ Series: Fictional Nurses of World War II,” available at www.elliemik.com /warnurses.html.