ARTS AND SCIENCES A Seventies Seduction By Thomas Mallon Ticknor & Fields. 210 pp. $16.95
This first novel about sexual and academic life in the 1970s starts slowly and develops serious problems even after it's finally gotten into gear, yet there's sufficient charm and wit in it to make the going worthwhile. Thomas Mallon, who teaches at Vassar, knows enough about the peculiarities and eccentricities of academic life to satirize them deftly, yet he also has enough affection for the people who are drawn to that life to depict them with sympathy and affection. The result is a slight but engaging novel.
"Arts and Sciences" is set in 1973 and '74 at Harvard University, where Artie Dunne is in his first year of study at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He is madly in love with the poetry of Keats (an infatuation that Mallon repeatedly mentions but never really develops) and believes that he wants to devote his life to the study of literature. He is also deep in the throes of a mysterious, indefinable malady, a feeling that "he was a person whose head wasn't quite right," that "a terrible dislocation was taking place inside his brain, even as he continued to function through his days."
But he begins to emerge from his funk when he suddenly, and in all respects inexplicably, begins to receive the academic and amorous attentions of a fellow student named Angela. Artie is short, thin, nerdish and poor; Angela is tall, lissome, beautiful and rich, not to mention British and his senior by several years. Yet somehow she fixes on him:
"Angela's forty-nine-square-foot bed was strewn with biographies of Elizabethan poets, Ian Fleming novels, her body and Artie's. She was half asleep. He was wide awake and wondering: why did she want him? They seemed about as equal as her BMW and his Schwinn. Did she want to mother him? Torture him? Perhaps love him? For days he had wanted to utter those explosive words, 'Let's talk about us,' but he sensed that if he did, she would fix him with her laser look. He settled for asking, 'What are you thinking about.' "
Perhaps what she's thinking about is academic business, pure and simple. She's made a deal with him under which she will translate his Greek lessons, at which he is woefully inept, in exchange for his giving her a thorough briefing on the American literature she must be prepared to discuss on the master's exam. When she ropes a couple of other grad students in on the deal -- "The law students do this all the time," she tells them. "It prepares them for a prosperous life of collusion. There's no reason we should have to be so solitary and slavish about everything" -- it seems that her motives are purely cynical: Presumably she'll extract the information she needs from Artie in exchange for a bit of perfunctory sex, then drop him once the hurdle of the exam has been crossed.
Whether that is indeed to be Artie's fate is the slender thread of plot upon which the novel hangs, but it is sufficient to permit Mallon to go about the rest of his business. This includes a homosexual encounter for which Artie is quite unprepared and which leaves him somewhat confused, yet gives him something Angela apparently cannot: "the possibility he was truly needed was something too thrilling for his self-loathing psyche to acknowledge." The novel also includes some intelligent and thoughtful musing about the connection between books and reality:
"Literature and life, Artie thought. He did believe in their marriage -- ardently, in fact. They belonged together, like Romulus and Remus, Thames and Medway, Frank and Joe Hardy. He loved books and poems that were of and about the world, that helped you to live in it, told you how. The 1970s were said to be the great age of the self-help book, but to Artie's mind all books were self-help books, or at least ought to be. He hated clever postmodern Pynchonian puzzle-novels, Nabokovian books about writing books, 'concrete poetry' without theme or meaning."
In this respect Artie is a man after my own heart, but otherwise he is a considerably less than arresting figure around whom to construct a story; for the reader as for Artie, it is a mystery to the end that Angela should be drawn to him, and it's a mystery that weakens the novel's credibility. So too does some of Mallon's dialogue; he's got Angela's brittle Anglo wit down just right, yet his Americans sound all wrong -- "since I could balance all my worldly goods on a bee's wazoo at the moment, I've gotta earn some clams," or, "I'm telling ya, with what I'm paying this slumlord on Putnam Avenue, I'm gonna be hooking or driving for Town Taxi by Thanksgiving."
Add to that a conclusion reeking of implausibility and you've got a novel with plenty of problems. In the end, though, its good spirits prevail; "Arts and Sciences" is fun, and it's nice, too.