At prestigious Woodslee College, some brilliant professors, mostly English teachers, have gathered at the dean's house to welcome Albert St. Dennis, the famous 70-year-old British poet.
It looks like another highminded and intellectual academic novel.
Senile and living in the past, (1912, for preference), the poet vomits drunkenly on the deans oriental rug. Before the year ends someone else vomits on the poet's rug; rug and poet go up in flame. The dean resigns; likewise the department's aging Shakespearean. The novel's central character, Brigit, who hears unpleasant voices, endures a hot but soon ashen affair with a bisexual poseur. The department bully who has "casual but intense liaisons with certain girl students" is crippled by self-induced emphysema. The department head, "whom everyone feared, or enjoyed fearing," and who pretends to be "a slow-thinking country-headed good-natured oaf," becomes the new dean; and another dolt replaces the college's president. Meanwhile the faculty wives slip closer to psychosis, a handful of your teachers is fired (one is rehired because his neurotic wife meets the bully in motel rooms to listen to him cough and talk about himself), and almost everyone is revealed as alcoholic, paranoid and incompetent.
Actually, for sheer intensity of life the academic business can be matched only by the ceramic animals racket. Therefore when academia finds its way into pop lit it must be either comically shrunk (even further) or humorlessly inflated until its trivial squabbles seem serious. Oates, no humorist, tries to have it both ways. The dean s ironically praised because he uses a handkerchief: "No lurid pink or yellow Kleenex for Oliver Byrne."
"'Dracula' is the greatest novel in English literature," thinks the bully, who "actually whimpered aloud and rushed from his carrel in the library and out into the street, clutching at his head" while reading Marx (Karl, despite his obvious debt to Groucho), while the deans's mind "snapped one day when he was working on Ravel's 'Jeux d'Eau.'" Brigit has "frightening bouts of exhaustion." As for the wives, Brigit speaks of her colleagues' "brain-obliterating marriages."
These comically warped feebs inhabit a correspondingly silly college. We never attand a class or a meeting; we never overhear an intellectual discussion; we never read anything published by a teacher. But we encounter a world in which teachers call each other "Dr." even in their thoughts, grown men battle in public over the design of the college stationery and the dean must leave a dinner party to attend an "emergency meeting" on the subject of parking.
But Oates also wants to persuade us that the ninnies in this alcoholic Disneyland are capable of emotional depth. Her words sweat to create passion: another emergency meeting deals with "the Romance languages department in a state of chaos, the head of the department in a fierce struggle with some of his senior men, threats of violence, threats of actual murder." Almost every character is given a foul mouth, since in pop lit dirty words signal deep feeling. And every twinge of self-consciousness -- and the novel is spastic with them -- is worked for all the pain that can be extracted. Even when a woman manages an orgasm her response is to agonize over how ugly she must have looked during it.
And the paranoia. A minor character appears, and the observer notices his "ostensibly harmless big body." While performing a "difficult, quite tricky . . . virtuoso piece," the poseur still manages to brood about at least seven people out to get him. The narrator (a technical disaster, at once omniscient and limited, impersonal and capable of saying "we") reports the firings, for example, but never the dull academic processes that led to them, creating a world of passive, ignorant, suffering victims of powers beyond comprehension.
Oates tells no story, but she underwhelms us with morbid case-histories. The reader soon learns to wince at apparently innocuous sentences; "Brigit finds herself studying Alexis Kessler," for instance, unstoppers 12 pages of Kessleriana. One is grateful to hear that St. Dennis "has forgotten most of his life and does not care to summon it back"; alas, his refusal is followed by five pages of rumors about his life. These persistent interpolations interrupt events that consist mostly of parties -- Oates is careful to avoid any scenes that might show humans at their best -- and the parties are usually further distorted by being reported though a warped consciousness -- the drunken host of one; a stupid, nervous guest suffering from influenza; Brigit drunk and about to start a fight; and the dean sunk in his parking problems ("the evening has passed like a dream").
There is painfully abundant evidence that Oates had "Ulysses" in mind while writing this novel. The disparity would be embarrassing, if one could imagine as capable of embarrassment anyone who would buy a novel called "Unholy Loves." Sounds like "Sweets of Sin," doesn't it?