In Michael Dirda's review of George Stade's Sex and Violence: A Love Story (Book World, Oct. 9), the phrase "dark and deeper than any sea-dingle" should have been attributed to W.H. Auden, not Dylan Thomas. (Published 10/16/2005)
SEX AND VIOLENCE
A Love Story
By George Stade
Turtle Point. 470 pp. Paperback, $17.50Like so many of the modernist works he teaches, George Stade, a professor of 20th-century literature at Columbia, has produced 500 pages that never quite settle into any particular genre. The subtitle of Sex and Violence is "a love story," its back cover calls this Stade's second mystery (some 25 years ago he produced Confessions of a Lady Killer), at times the book reads like an academic comedy (the setting is a semi-fictional Columbia University) and there are long riffs about jazz, including a 14-page biography of the great trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. The sex of the title is delicious middle-aged-male wish-fulfillment -- a beautiful young thing in her early twenties acts out various fantasies to cure the narrator's sexual dysfunction -- and the violence, largely off-stage, is extremely grotesque. The structure is (unconvincingly) epistolary, with all the letters written to the narrator's dead junkie brother, while some matters grow so implausible that the book touches on camp. Nonetheless, the dominant tone might well be defined as that of quiet desperation.
All this matters only because the uneasy multiplicity of genres will leave most readers feeling off-kilter, unsure about how much emotional commitment to make to the narrative. Should we care about the characters? Laugh or cry over their fates? Or should we simply enjoy the ride? I found Sex and Violence witty and touching but esthetically patchy as a whole. Still, who can resist a flurry of bon mots such as "The First Law of Adminstrative Work: those who want to do it thereby prove they are not qualified"? Or "The only time he doesn't look haggard is when he looks ravaged"? At one point, we are told that this past century should be labeled a "tragifarce," and that odd word probably characterizes Stade's novel as well as any.
Its narrator is . . . well, let me transcribe his description from the dramatis personae with which this book unexpectedly opens: "Wynn O'Leary: expert on modernism, ex-football player, still big and strong, but has put on lots of weight since his wife left him, has a 'a little problem,' the source of his bitter wit."
Besides having this little problem -- it's pretty clear from the get-go that it involves the bedroom -- Wynn is also given to occasional eruptions of violence; nonetheless, he is much liked by his department. For a man around 40, he is apparently a distinguished critic, albeit old-fashioned in his practice, perhaps "the last professor of English who thought writers . . . more important than critics." Still, he respects most of his more trendy colleagues, finds himself attracted to a feminist academic who writes about the social construction of sexuality and counts a gay black scholar of American literature as his best friend.
Thus Stade presents for us a typical university community in the era just before Viagra and Sept. 11 -- typical, at least, until somebody starts to kill professors with a Ka-Bar knife and leave them trussed up in humiliating sexual positions. Who can it be? Just as these horrible mutilations begin, Wynn takes in a distant cousin named Julie Berceau, who has left her rocker boyfriend and plans to take some classes and find herself. As if that weren't enough, Wynn also finds himself sucked into accepting the vice-chairmanship of the English department and forced to deal with a highly unstable secretary while being pressured over tenure and dissertation projects, trying to solve his little problem, and submitting to probing visits from his old football rival, Hector Suarez, now a police detective working on the campus murders. Could all this stress be enough to drive a man mad?
Most novels set in the academy satirize the argot of the English department. Stade does this occasionally too, but he likes even more to bury allusions to modern literature in his reflections, quips and conversations. As a result, Sex and Violence is, despite the gritty title, replete with literary arcana, and those who enjoy learned games will find it a playground.
How literary is that arcana, you ask? In a pedagogical spirit appropriate to Stade's book, I've prepared a pop quiz -- please close your Norton anthologies -- so that readers can decide whether they enjoy this kind of wit. See if you can identify the references in the following pasages from Sex and Violence.
1) "out of key with your time, trying to resuscitate the dead art of bop."
2) "Uncle Alf is dead, with Joel O'Leary in the grave."
3) "I was particularly impressed by the curve that ran from the groovy delta at the base of her spine and swooped out and around and down under into that sacred grove, dark and deeper than any sea dingle."
4) "You will measure out your life in meeting rooms."
5) "All our fashionable dishes aspire to the condition of baby food."
6) "I'll leave it for you to sustain the world with warm breast and ah! Bright wings."
7) "I'm writing a paper I think I'll call 'Poetry Did Make Something Happen.' "
8) "Julie falling in with my mood, hunching over an air guitar, a shearsman of sorts, clanging out cords."
Here are the authors alluded to: 1) Ezra Pound, 2) W.B. Yeats, 3) Dylan Thomas (with a possible nod to John Donne), 4) T.S. Eliot, 5) Walter Pater, 6) Gerard Manley Hopkins. 7) W.H. Auden, 8) Wallace Stevens. You receive extra points if you remember that the Pound comes from "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly" or the Stevens from "The Man with the Blue Guitar." If, however, you found these all too simple, you can go on to trickier allusions such as "visionary gleam" or "Felicia is not a mirror, but a lamp." No credit, though, for the easy ones like "And so to bed," or for recognizing the original of Amabelle Bloor. Still, I was disappointed that "Christopher North" -- the name of one of the murder suspects -- seems to have been a red herring. Or perhaps I simply missed the subtlety of the allusion.
Well, as James Joyce says (and Stade repeats), "Your head it simply swirls." Of course, if you don't care for the literary stuff in Sex and Violence, you can still relish the bedroom romps, the parallel allusions to jazz history and the repartee among English profs who exemplify every common sexual and critical bent. In fact, the novel really is rather like one of those college-faculty cocktail parties where everyone drinks too much, the jokes grow show-offy and esoteric, boredom leads to eating too many appetizers, flirtation gets out of hand, old rivals nearly come to blows, and everyone feels sad and weary the next morning. In other words, a pretty good time, though not anything you couldn't afford to miss. *
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.