A Witty Tale Of Academia And Angst

Emily Fox Gordon

hide captionThe winner of two Pushcart Prizes, Emily Fox Gordon is an essayist and the author of two memoirs, Mockingbird Years and Are You Happy? A Childhood Remembered. She lives in Houston and teaches writing workshops at Rice University.

Joseph Constantine

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast hosted by NPR's Lynn Neary. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

It makes sense that Emily Fox Gordon would choose a college campus as the setting for her first novel, It Will Come to Me. Her father was a professor of economics at Williams College, and she grew up surrounded by the academic world in the college town of Williamstown, Mass. She first wrote about her childhood in her memoir Are You Happy? A Childhood Remembered. And though she describes herself as an overweight social misfit with a difficult father and a mother who became an alcoholic, she was not altogether unhappy.

But after a failed suicide attempt at the age of 18, Fox Gordon did end up in a mental institution. She wrote of her three years at the Austen Riggs sanitarium in her first memoir, Mockingbird Years. Fox Gordon actually longed for insanity back then.

"I had swallowed whole the ideology that connects madness to beauty of spirit," she writes. Being a mental patient, she felt, would "invest me with significance." She brought that penetrating self-honesty and her keen skills as an observer to bear on life in a "therapeutic community," where patients were free to come and go, and many, like herself, suffered more from a vague sense of ennui than true mental illness.

Now a professor at Rice University in Houston, she uses those same skills to nail down campus life in It Will Come to Me. The narrator is Ruth Blau, the wife of a professor at the Lola Dees Institute in Texas. Ruth once had a potentially promising career as a writer. She's now 56, and when a well-known writer arrives on campus, Ruth sees a chance to revive her long-quenched literary ambitions. But Ruth is also mourning the fate of her only son Isaac, a homeless man who is mentally ill. In her first work of fiction, Fox Gordon finds a way to write about the real tragedy of mental illness at the same time that she skewers the foibles of academic life.

Fox Gordon read from It Will Come to Me at the McNally Jackson bookstore on March 23. Her editor, Julie Grau, senior vice president and publisher of Spiegel & Grau, joined her to discuss the novel The New Yorker says shines with "wit, complexity and detail."

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Recorded at McNally Jackson, New York.

Excerpt: 'It Will Come To Me'

'It Will Come To Me'
It Will Come to Me
By Emily Fox Gordon
Hardcover, 288 pages
Spiegel & Grau
List price: $25.00

Chapter One

Professor Blau!" the student cried out, bounding up the steps. A frenetic session of handshaking ensued, but Ruth could see by Ben's warm vague smile that this young man had him at a momentary disadvantage.

The student, or ex-student, was sandy-haired and sunburnt. His aviator sunglasses hung from a braided leather cord around his neck. Now he was telling them about his year as an intern in a senator's office and how he'd gotten into the Stanford program. Remember Alison, his girlfriend? She was in med school and they were getting married in December. Here he glanced shyly at Ruth.

A pause. The preliminaries had been gotten through, and Ruth knew all too well what would happen next. The student would ask Ben's advice and Ben would dispense it. Ruth would stand there, trapped and excluded, shifting from one foot to the other in an ecstasy of boredom. Twenty minutes, forty minutes. At some point the conversation would begin to wind down. After a long diminuendo of farewells the student would excuse himself. But even then, the danger would not have passed. It had happened more than once that even as Ben's interlocutor had turned and taken several steps away, Ben remembered some final piece of advice—a colleague to look up, a course to avoid—and actually called the student back. The coffin sprang open and the grinning corpse of the conversation sat bolt upright.

Now was the moment to slip away. She smiled her quick sideways smile at Ben, who was too involved in talk to notice, and withdrew to the stone railing. Looking down, she saw a scene of young people standing in conversational knots. This place, known as Nirvana, was the graduate-student bar, a beer-dispensing station operating out of the basement of the chemistry building. Patrons descended into that dank grotto to order their seventy-five-cent bocks and lagers and carried them up into the light of late afternoon to drink them under the dappled shade of live oaks. They arrayed themselves around the grounds of the building, sitting on benches, leaning against brick, ranged along the steps of the external stone staircase leading to the second floor. Nirvana was a chronically endangered institution. For years, a counselor at the Wellness Center had been waging a letter-writing campaign against it in the student paper, and the proprietors had recently been put on notice that it would be shut down by the university if a handicapped ramp was not installed.

Ben liked to spend an hour or two here on a Friday afternoon perched at the very top of the stone steps, where he could pick his students out of the crowd, or those of his colleagues—not many showed up—to whom he wanted to speak. Ruth had pointed out several times that he was just as visible to people down there as they were to him, but the panoramic view seemed to make him feel secure. On these occasions he drank one beer, two at most. Ruth drank two and wanted two more.

She looked down directly on the neatly parted blond head of a young woman who stood flanked by two tall young men. One was carrying a sleeping newborn in a front pack. The other had a receding hairline and an Adam's apple like a swallowed anvil. The patrons here were mostly graduate students, some as old as forty, but their faces were so unmarked as to seem hardly human. Faculty members tended to stay young too, she'd noticed—perhaps it was the sea of youth washing over them year after year. And when they did begin to show age the effect was often stagy and unconvincing, as though they'd achieved it by powdering their hair and applying grease pencil to the lines around their mouths.

Ruth stole a glance at Ben, who was listening to the student with unfeigned interest. How the student glowed in the light of his attention. Or perhaps that was just his youth, just his health. Ben had turned sixty a few weeks ago, but he was still broad in the shoulder and trim at the waist. Standing in shadow he could almost pass for a graduate student. Could she? Certainly not, though she dressed as though she hoped to, in black jeans and clogs and dangling silver earrings.

As faculty brat and faculty wife (or spouse, as the euphemism had it) and occasional adjunct instructor, she'd always been a member of what the administration liked to call the "university community." Though she was permitted to use the gym and the libraries and included under the umbrella of the university's medical and dental insurance, she was not, apparently, covered by the stay-young policy. She was fifty-six, and looked it. But recently she'd discovered one of the benign perplexities of aging: despite the increasing efforts she made to conceal them, the cosmetic changes didn't bother her terribly. In the last few years she'd watched the pleating of the flesh under her chin and the deepening of the seams that ran down her cheeks with a certain dismay but also with an oddly detached sense of satisfaction. It was very much the way she felt twenty-five years ago when she was pregnant, standing nude in front of a full-length mirror, assessing the swelling of her belly. It's coming along, had been her thought then, and that was her thought now too. Coming right along. How was it, then, that most nights she lay awake at three in the morning, brooding about age and death?

Looking down again, she counted three toddlers in the crowd. One slumped in a backpack, blankly mouthing a pacifier. Two staggered unsteadily through a forest of adult legs. They made a pleasant enough sight, she supposed, if one was in a mood to find it so. She wasn't. Instead, she was feeling irritated, as she often did these days. Why, she asked herself, does nothing ever happen? This was a drinking establishment, but no place could be safer or duller. The presence of children made it duller still. Somebody should tell the wellness counselor not to worry: in all the years she and Ben had been coming here, she'd never seen anyone betray even the mildest symptom of intoxication. It was as if some odorless gas had been released into the air, rendering all these fit young people perfectly placid and well behaved. There were no brawls, no loud laughter, no raised voices, none of the intense intellectual talk Ruth would have liked to become embroiled in. Or would she? She used to think of herself as an aggressive debater, but she'd grown shy in recent years, conscious of all she didn't know, easily flummoxed by a challenge.

. . .

none of Ben's students knew it anymore, and neither did most young faculty, but twenty-five years ago Ruth had been a writer of some small note. Her first book, published by an academic press, was a collection of carefully crafted short stories in the New Yorker style which got little attention and was reviewed only in the local paper. Under the influence of Alison Lurie's The War Between the Tates, she went on to try her hand at a short novel—a novella, really—about an assistant professor of ethics with a bullying, womanizing chairman and a passive, contemplative wife. Moral Turpitude was its title, and it happened to catch the attention of a prominent reviewer, who called it "sharply observed." Encouraged, she produced another, In These Halls, with the same cast of characters. "Refreshing!" a second critic said, so she wrote a third, Getting Good. Her publisher packaged the books as a trilogy under that title, which was duly hailed as "acid," "biting," and "caustic." The volume sold surprisingly well and Ruth was summoned to New York and fed cold salmon at lunch by her publisher.

Then Isaac was born, and in the milky dreamy years of early motherhood she found she'd lost access to whatever capacity it was that had called forth all those low-pH adjectives. She looked for it again when he started school, and discovered it was still gone. Not that she stopped writing entirely. During Isaac's early adolescence her time was divided among part-time teaching, volunteer work, and consultations with his therapists and teachers, but even so, she produced three hundred pages of an unfinished novel. Three years ago, at the advice of her own therapist, she enrolled in a local writing program, where she was the oldest student in all her workshops. She dropped out in the middle of her third semester. For a year after that she worked in fits and starts on another novel, Whole Lives Devoured, two hundred pages of which now lay ignored in a disordered pile on her desk.

The paperback of the Getting Good trilogy had long since gone out of print, but you could find it in secondhand bookstores, sometimes in the dollar bins out in the street. She could spot it on a shelf fifty yards away, a compact, chunky book with a pastel three-stripe cover design, like a slab of Neapolitan ice cream. Every once in a while—less and less frequently as the years went by—she would be introduced to someone who would stare at her hard for a moment and blurt out, "You wrote Getting Good, didn't you?" Ruth would blush violently and say yes. Yes, that was me.

Now, with Isaac out of the house, she found she could summon forth any amount of useless bile. At a Philosophy Department potluck dinner last spring she had posted herself in the kitchen doorway and observed. How, she asked herself, would she make use of the scene she was watching? If she squinted hard enough to blur the identities of the guests, she could imagine, just for a moment, evidence of sexual tension in the interaction between a statuesque graduate student and a married faculty member. But it didn't last. There was nothing predatory in his posture, nothing seductive in hers. Could she hope at least that they were sharing confidences? Probably not. More likely they were complaining about the delinquencies of the registrar's office or the campus parking situation.

That party. It was like a hundred others. The table was laden with the ruminant foods brought by faculty members (quinoa salads and lentil casseroles) and the childish sweets contributed by graduate students (lopsided cakes and giant cookies embedded with M&M's). Guests grazed at the table, milled through the rooms of the house, paused to take inventory of the books on the shelves. Looking at these people, many of whom she liked, she felt a mild astonishment. My, they were dull!

It wasn't that Ruth wanted to promote adulterous liaisons between faculty members and graduate students. All she asked for was a world where the expectations of her childhood might be borne out—a world of background and foreground, light and shadow, up and down. One day when she was ten or eleven, a pair of lovers, both faculty members, both married to others, had come to her parents to confess their intention to run away together. They literally appeared on the doorstep after lunch. Ruth's parents led them into Ruth's father's study—he was a classics professor at a small New England college—where all afternoon the lovers petitioned for their blessing. Ruth's parents gave them a sympathetic hearing but refused to sanction their plan. There were intervals of shouting, a few blasts of anarchic laughter from the man, much quiet sobbing from the woman. Pressing her ear against the door, Ruth heard it all.

What she needed was a world in which such excitements were at least hypothetically possible. It wasn't that she wished to enter into them herself. That was in fact exactly what she didn't want. She was entirely dependent on other people to act it out for her, to provide her with something to observe, something to record, something to speculate about. She didn't require anything splashy; at this point she'd settle for a malicious glint in somebody's eye, a quick exchange of sympathetic glances. But here on this quiet Southern campus she was apparently living at the end of history. There was nothing to write about, no affairs, no scandals, no feuds of any but the pettiest kind. There were misfortunes, more and more of them medical, but misfortune is not the stuff of novels, at least not the kind she wanted to write. There were a number of difficult people, certainly, but in most cases they were discreetly ignored. The expectation was that eventually, like tired children, they would learn to comfort themselves and go to sleep.

Dull. Dull dull dull. Nirvana was dull. Potluck dinners were dull. Convocations were dull, but luckily she was excused from attending them. Lectures were almost always dull. The department picnic was so dull—four hours of desultory softball in the blazing late-May sun—that she pleaded with Ben to be let out of it. She herself was dull. The other day Ben had run a finger along her cheek and told her she had a pleasant face. A pleasant face!

Of all the dull events in the academic calendar, the annual dinner honoring university chair holders was, in the end, the dullest. It was also acutely frustrating, because it got her hopes up. The chair-holder dinner was the only dress-up occasion of the year. It held the promise of a little glitter, a little transcendence, and every October, in spite of herself, she found herself looking forward to it. There was a cocktail hour with real bar drinks and white-jacketed waiters (they were undergraduates, but so what?) circulating with trays of hors d'oeuvres. Ruth genuinely enjoyed the early part of these evenings; she welcomed the chance to observe people from many different vantage points, all removed from the action. She liked to patrol the outskirts of the party on Ben's arm, pointing out to him the latitude with which some of the honorees and their spouses interpreted the term "black tie." Even so, there were always a few striking costumes to admire. Last year a quiet little wren of an Indian molecular biologist elicited gasps when she made her entrance in a midriff-baring white satin sari. And there were notables to be spotted—a very new dean, backed up against a wall by a pack of sycophants, or a recent hire in Anthropology with a shaved head and a tattooed neck. Not that there was anything particularly exciting about that: trendy academics were the tamest of exotics, utterly habituated to the academic preserve, declawed cheetahs paraded on jeweled leashes by the department chairs who acquired them.

Later, sitting at a round table in a partitioned-off section of a commons room, eating hard-to-identify morsels served in nests of frisee lettuce, she paid for her earlier pleasure. Typically she found herself seated next to a professor emeritus of engineering with two hearing aids. On her other side would be a mathematician, or an empty chair. Ben generally had better luck. His dinner partner was usually the conversation-starved wife of the engineer, who kept him occupied with anecdotes about her grandchildren.

Dessert was served and watery decaf was poured. The president of the university clinked his glass with his fork and bade various faculty members to come forward to receive praise and parchment scrolls. Then it was time to introduce the speaker, always an academic with a vaguely recognizable name and a long history of coziness with the president. "Now I don't want to tell tales about Old Joe here," the beaming, swaying president would begin. He'd throw an arm around Old Joe's shoulders, launch into a story about Old Joe's paradoxical modesty, his self-effacing collegiality, his heroic integrity. He'd detail the many presidential commissions to which Old Joe had been named.

Excerpted from It Will Come to Me by Emily Fox Gordon. Copyright © 2009 by Emily Fox Gordon. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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