'Handmaid': ridiculing the deconstructors

September 15, 1996|By Merle Rubin | Merle Rubin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The Handmaid of Desire," by John L'Heureux. Soho. 264 pages. $23.

It has often struck me as strange that many publishers shy away from academic novels, presumably on the grounds that fiction with such a rarefied setting can only attract a small readership. Surely a high proportion of readers have at least a nodding acquaintance with the realms of higher education, and many more readers, whatever their academic background, have enough imagination to enjoy novels set everywhere from 18th century England to the Starship Enterprise.

Academia nowadays offers a tempting target for the writer with satire on his mind, and novelist John L'Heureux, the author of 17 previous books, clearly knows his way around the often mean-spirited worlds of literary and university politics. He has set his sights on a potentially risible nest of ninnies in his latest novel, "Handmaid of Desire."

His intentions are laudable: He's out to make fun of predatory careerists more interested in promoting themselves than promoting literature. But, although he well understands what he wants to accomplish - a satire of academia that engages the more powerful the more universal themes of power, love, ambition, self-delusion, betrayal, and folly - what is promised fails to materialize.

Olga Kominska, the eponymous "Handmaid," is a prominent literary luminary spending a term at a prestigious university in the environs of San Francisco. The department is rife with squabbling and intrigue. Led by the power-hungry Zachary Kurtz, the theory-crazed "young Turks" are scheming to replace the boring "old fools," and they hope to enlist Olga's help in the grand design. Olga, however, is planning to use them as material for her next novel. The subject, she realizes is less than enthralling: "Who could care about English departments ... and the petty ambitions of petty academics?" Her idea is to use this particular petty squabble as the occasion for writing a novel about "Power ... and the folly of answered prayers."

We never get to read Olga's book, but we do get to watch as she cunningly "helps" various conniving academics get what they think they want, which also turns out to be, more or less, what they actually deserve. Olga's activities thus generate L'Heureux's novel. What proves to be unintentionally ironic about this arrangement is that Olga, acting as the author's alter ego, provides some excellent advice on writing novels that L'Heureux seems to have been unable to follow.

Olga knows that a trivial incident can be the occasion for examining a significant issue. She also explains how writers must reach deep into themselves for a core of genuine feeling to give life to their characters. But the characters in the "Handmaid of Desire," starting with Olga herself and including everyone she meets, from scheming Zachary Kurtz to blandly handsome Peter Peeks, a graduate student who doubles as a boy toy, are tissue-paper thin. Not only do they lack the dimensionality of believable characters, they fail even to achieve the pithiness of successful caricatures. The plot is vastly underdeveloped and the author's satirical aim is dissipated in a series of pointless incidents and ill-conceived scenes that simply aren't very funny.

Buxom lesbians, frustrated impotent men, incontinent daschunds and flabby middle-aged couples rediscovering sexual passions in their hot tubs contribute nothing to the novel's purported satirical purpose and smack more of authorial desperation than inventive exuberance.

Rallying to the cause of literature and humanism by making fun of its would-be deconstructors may be a good idea in theory, but this novel does not manage to translate theory into praxis.

Merle Rubin writes for the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, among others. She has a doctorate in English from the University of Virginia.

Pub Date: 9/15/96

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