For half a century, the appeal of the campus novel has been irresistible. The genre has served some high-minded writers, from Vladimir Nabokov in Pnin to Zadie Smith in On Beauty. It has also accommodated clever farceurs, from Kingsley Amis to Tom Sharpe. The follies of academics that might be comically liberating for David Lodge are tragically destructive for Philip Roth in The Human Stain. The eternal misfit between intellectual aspiration (or pretension) and human reality suits many authorial purposes. The stupidity of clever people is endlessly entertaining. The university department is a perfect container for vanity and petty ambition masquerading as intellectual consequence. English departments and their staff have proved particularly popular - partly because Eng lit has been so amusingly susceptible to intellectual fashion, partly because English graduates are more likely than others to write novels.
Ian McGuire's Incredible Bodies is more evidence that the genre has plenty of misanthropic life in it. This refreshingly low-minded campus novel is both up to date and rather traditional. It reaches back to the earliest English campus novel, Amis's Lucky Jim, in having an academic anti-hero and shambling malcontent at its centre. Morris Gutman is a temporary lecturer in the English department of the University of Coketown, somewhere up north. He did his PhD on the terminally unfashionable novelist Arthur Alderley and has a very slippery foothold on an academic career, employed for ten months on the lowest legal salary to teach courses such as "Misogyny and the Novel" and "The History of Critique". How can he secure employment in the brave new academic world of queer theory and postmodernist cultural studies? Only by fluke and grave dishonesty.
The university is run by academics who have transmogrified into administrative brutalists. Some of Morris's older colleagues are almost dead in the water. Classified as "research inactive", they hug the booze and lament the brazen ignorance of their undergraduates. The successful young pretenders who do produce "research" are charlatans who spout "body theory", write papers on transgression and polymorphous sexuality and wor-ship at the shrine of the "über-theorist" Firenze Beach. Beach's magnum opus, Incredible Bodies: flesh without form, gives the novel its title and its running joke. According to the theory, "the body" is always culturally formed and knows no natural inclinations. Naturally, though, McGuire's novel details all the ways in which his clever-talking characters are laid low by their bodies. It is, like campus novels before it, a tale of drunkenness, lust and sheer slapstick ineptitude.
Some of the set pieces are old favourites given a new sheen. On the strength of his plagiarised article "Total mindfuck", published in the happening journal Vagina Dentata, Morris gets invited to the LA Body Conference at the Malibu Hilton, where McGuire introduces an international cast of poseurs. ("I'm doing a collection for UCP - the body-machine nexus. We've got the usual guys: Franz Poppenheim on race and machinery, Celie Humm on reconstructive surgery. But an ethics piece would be a terrific addition.") There is the disciplinary meeting, where the machinations of academics put the courtiers in Jacobean tragedies to shame. There is the disastrous seminar, in which our hero entertainingly fails to bluff his way through the philosophy of Kant.
This is a satirical novel, complete with improbable plot twists and comic coincidences, written strictly in vivid journa-lese. Analogies are extreme, emotions are cartoonish, hyperbole is the norm. All this is fine and highly enjoyable. The only problems come from McGuire's desire to give us multiple viewpoints. Mostly we see the world according to Morris, but sometimes we are inside other characters' heads: that of fellow academic Zoe Cable, irresistible careerist and brilliant intellectual fraud, or Morris's put-upon wife "E" (her real name is the apparently unusable "Eugenia"). The inner life of these characters adds nothing, being but an extension of their outward appearance. The generosity of McGuire's sympathies feels factitious, and the loss of focus on his accident-prone, deceitful, perceptive protagonist is a loss of comic potential.
Campus novels beg you recognise their characters and situations, and perhaps it is hardly surprising that they should flourish as more and more potential readers go to university. Most of their authors draw directly on their own experiences, many having been, like their absurd characters, academics. McGuire is a lecturer in American literature at Manchester University. His colleagues might feel twitchy if they read his novel. Like many of his predecessors in his chosen fictional genre, he has chosen a day job that looks like a great way of collecting novelistic material.
John Mullan is a lecturer in English at University College London