Just when it seems that there’s no room in the class for another novel about college life, a new hand goes up. I won’t run through the whole roster because you already know the upperclassmen — from Richard Russo’s “Straight Man” to Jane Smiley’s “Moo.” Only two years ago, Jeffrey Eugenides brought the form to new heights with “The Marriage Plot,” a brilliant novel about an English major infected by the plots of 19th-century classics. Kingsley Amis’s “Lucky Jim,” of course, still lords it over them all.
So it takes some nerve to stride into this tweedy group and perform under the anxiety of their influence. What new footnote could be added to David Lodge’s satires of postmodern theory? How many class titles like “Fetishes and Freaks: Strategies of Queering the Gothic” can we giggle over? Who could possibly trace another erotic tension or envious impulse through the groves of academe?
Answer: Susan Choi. She’s never sounded smarter or wittier than she does in her fourth novel, “My Education.” Once again, we’re on a college campus with pompous professors. Once again, we meet an English major donning the mantle of adulthood, thirsty for “new esoterica.” But by the force of her stylistic virtuosity and psychological precision, Choi gives this worn setup all the nubile energy of a new school year.
The narrator is a 21-year-old student named Regina Gottlieb. “Graduate school was my Eden,” she tells us in a hilarious parody of self-righteous feminism and political correctness. Widely unread, she’s nevertheless mastered a pose of “enchanted absorption” that professors drink up. Totally out of her depth, “at that age I still believed in the malleability of personality, and could imagine myself more competent in fields about which I knew nothing.” Choi’s great triumph here is her ability to create a voice that enacts Regina’s cluelessness while simultaneously critiquing her. She’s the embodiment of that uniquely modern educational disaster: the brilliant student who knows nothing.
But of course she knows what she wants, and what she wants is Professor Nicholas Brodeur, at “almost forty” the English department’s star scholar and infamous sexual harasser. “He was the best-looking man I had seen in the flesh to that point in my life,” Regina says, and that he’s also the subject of petitions, complaints and protests makes him all the more irresistible. “He was said to recite bawdy couplets referring to breasts while directing his gaze in the classroom at actual breasts,” she whispers with aroused opprobrium.
She wiggles herself into his seminar and then into his office, where everything that went wrong in David Mamet’s “Oleanna” goes charmingly right. Soon, she’s working as his TA (no pun intended) and attending a boozy end-of-term party at his house. But at the moment of a consummation devoutly to be wished, Regina makes a play for the professor’s wife, and the novel takes a strange detour.
“Like any inexperienced fool, I believed that one need only follow the heart,” Regina says, in an acknowledgment of the havoc she sparks. There’s something dangerous about her insatiable affection, her unshakable belief that any barrier must fall before the force of her love. Although Regina is recalling this experience from many years later, these events come to us in all their sticky immediacy. “We could not stop avidly stroking each other,” she says, “as if we were a pair of Helen Kellers who had just linked the name with the flesh.” Admittedly, I don’t get out much, but the lesbian sex scenes of “My Education” should push it toward the erotic end of the bookshelf. Choi tries — and largely succeeds — to convey the overwhelming sensation of Regina’s first experience with “lovemaking’s arduous toil.” Sometimes, that’s thrilling. Sometimes, it involves effusing lines that might catch the attention of the judges for the Bad Sex Award, e.g. “Often my flesh went so dry we would squeak like a rubber shoe-sole on linoleum tile.”
The bulk of the novel sails across the stormy waters of Regina’s relationship with her professor’s wife. The impossible highs of youthful passion, the inevitable despair of asymmetrical devotion, and especially the withering bickering between two lovers of such wildly different levels of maturity — it’s all here in engorged Technicolor. What makes this so delicious, though, is Choi’s relentless style, the unflagging force of her scrutiny. She spins Regina’s voice into a breathless parody of Jamesean analysis — portrait of a lady as a young sex toy. Honestly, few other writers alive today make their sentences work so hard. Try skimming these paragraphs too fast and you’ll cut yourself on the sharpened edges of her prose.
But then, alas. . . .
Although endings are the literary appendages that book critics must handle with special care, I’ve got to say that I found the 80-page coda of “My Education” distractingly poor. Set in 2007, when Regina is a best-selling chick-lit author, this conclusion wastes the focused energy that the body of the novel generates. It thrusts a side character awkwardly into the center of the plot and introduces new characters whom we can’t care about. Worse, this novella-length section revolves around a series of quickly developed, even zany events that lack the necessary combination of wit and plausibility.
Choi obviously wants this latter section to be a reflection on Regina’s educational affair — and it does offer some wisdom about the differences between billowy passion and mature love. But its retrospection seems scattered and depth-resistant. It’s worth noting that Gail Godwin’s recent novel “Flora” handles the task of reappraising a youthful passion with just a few powerful concluding pages. There must be 50 ways to leave your lover, but sometimes relationships — and novels — drag on too long for their own good.
Charles is the fiction editor of The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles
By Susan Choi
Viking. 296 pp. $26.95