Field Notes: And The Heart Says Whatever, Straight Man

AND THE HEART SAYS WHATEVER

SYNOPSIS: Emily Gould’s 2010 memoir/essay collection about life, sex, and culture in New York City.

CONDITION: New. Powell’s.

THOUGHTS: I’ll try to keep this one short, since there’s not a lot of value in being categorically negative, but I had high hopes for this book. I did. I paid the full cover price for it, and I was hugely let down. My only consolation is that it wasn’t released in hardcover.

It seems painfully clear to me that And the Heart Says Whatever would never have been written, and absolutely would never have been published, had Emily Gould moved to any place on the planet other than New York. The level of self-absorption that that city can cultivate is just astonishing. Sometime it’s put to good use—and lord knows Canadian writers could use a little of that confidence—but when it goes wrong, it’s a petty, frustrating sight.

Of the 11 essays here, one is about the shitty blues bar Gould worked in. One is about how cool her friend is. And one is about her dog. Several of them circle back to one particularly important ex-boyfriend. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that every person I know has variations on these same stories, but it takes a certain New York solipsism to think other people will want to pay money to read about them. (If I’m wrong about this, wire me $5 and I’ll tell you about the two weeks I spent bartending at Swiss Chalet.)

I just can’t imagine how this became a book pitch, let alone an actual book. Gould is 28, and hasn’t done much of anything. Even what she has done seems mishandled. The first essay, “Flower,” begins with the story of how her 17-year-old self slept with a 14-year-old virgin from her swim team, which is a great, spiky premise—but then she seems to lose interest, and ditches it. Gould is most famous for her 2008 New York Times Magazine cover story, in which she details her time as an editor at Gawker. That piece isn’t even included.

She also has a troubling attitude for a memoirist, writing things like “I hate they way [photos] interfere with actual memory” and “The past is not a place you can visit.” If Gould really believes these things, why do they appear smack in the middle of past-recapturing, memory-altering essays?

It’s not that the stories are boring, exactly. I’m sure they work just fine as anecdotes, or blog entries. But if that’s how low we’re setting the bar these days, then literature is in worse shape than I thought.

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STRAIGHT MAN

SYNOPSIS: Richard Russo’s 1997 novel of academic satire, set in the English department at a badly underfunded Pennsylvania university.

CONDITION: Used, from Old Strathcona Books in late 2009.

THOUGHTS: Most campus novels are told from a professor’s point of view. Said professor is usually in the English department, in or approaching middle age, and the novel he/she occupies is concerned with the political bickering and sexual goings-on of the faculty rather than anything the student body is up to.

There’s a reason for this, of course: most campus novels are written by novelists who have recently accepted an adjunct teaching job. Naturally, they turn to what material they have at hand—and what they have at hand, apparently, are inept colleagues, divine secretaries, and hopelessly moronic students.

The campus novel is one of my favourite mini-genres, and for as long as I’ve been telling people this, Straight Man has been recommended to me more than any other book. My goodness, did it live up to its reputation.

Richard Russo spent time teaching at a number of schools, and his alter-ego, a clever but chronically underachieving man named William Henry Devereaux, Jr., is as witty and rapid-fire a narrator as they come. In his quest to keep his department as stalled as possible—for reasons even he doesn’t understand, he’s been named interim chair—he threatens to kill a goose on live television, hides in the rafters above his office before a crucial meeting, and playfully alienates nearly everyone around him. His radical politics have slowly devolved into base contrarianism.

Straight Man takes place over the course of one week, but there’s a staggering amount of plot going on at any given moment. Every detail, no matter how glancing, is there for a reason, and will come back later at just the right moment—when Henry, on a whim, buys one of those Groucho Marx disguises at a yard sale, he’ll decide to slip them on just before making the goose threat. Is it significant, plot-wise, that he’s popping antihistamines to fight a cold? You bet it is. The novel has a hundred separate moving parts.

And on a very basic level, it was pure bliss to read. I’m looking forward to re-reading it already. Russo sends his hero pinballing off of at least a few dozen colleagues and family members, and each relationship is carefully and lovingly observed. The jokes are there, and it’s nice to read someone who’s not afraid of letting his sentences get a little lush and wordy as needed—though, on that note, would it kill him to use a simple “he said” every now and then?

I’ll admit I’m also a little troubled by the ending, in which Henry doesn’t quite break his boys-club mentality and have that much-needed heart-to-heart talk with his wife and daughters. Instead, he goes drinking. Whether this is Henry’s fault or the book’s, I’m not sure. It’s not a huge deal, by any means, but it nagged me all the same.

Henry writes a column for a local newspaper under the nickname “Lucky Hank,” which is a nice throwback to Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, in many ways the archetypal campus novel. So to show my devotion to Straight Man, I’m going to name one of the professors in my book-in-progress Devereaux.

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