Tessa McWatt beat me to the novel I haven’t written in Higher Ed. The novel takes up the current state of higher education in Britain (to be fair, I’d write the novel about Canadian higher ed, so perhaps there’s still a market – not). Through the interwoven narratives of five characters – the administrator, the film professor, the waiter, the law student and the civil servant – the novel explores the way we live in alienated, precarious and exhausted existences and how we might live otherwise.
Metaphors work to give contour to this exploration. Our administrator, Francine, works as a Quality Assurance officer at the University, helping programs through the absurd and demeaning process of justifying their existence by way of forms, counts, assessment checks and more forms. Francine, our character-stand-in for the university itself, has a distorted self image and bulimic practices. She wants to be ever trimmer, ever more efficient, to see herself, and more importantly to be seen by others, as successful. Yet, as any bulimic would know, in the attempt to purge, all she succeeds in doing is wasting energy on what isn’t important (and getting – ironically – bloated in the process). She sells out her ideals (and her body) to get ahead, only to discover that in the process of proving her worth to others she’s forgotten her own sense of self and priorities. Read the last paragraph again replacing “she” with “the university” and you see how the metaphor works in the novel.
Enter the civil servant who works disposing of the forgotten or “lonely dead,” those who have no one but the state on which to rely when they die. The civil servant, Ed, works with his once estranged daughter, the law student, Olivia, to bring some kind of meaning to these sanitized and bureaucratic deaths complete with mass graves and – again – forms. Their attempts at meaning take the shape we all recognize as meaning-makers: song, storytelling and poetry. As the two characters make this lone and ultimately futile (like life, the novel poses) effort, they deepen their relationship and come to trust and rely on one another. Pitted against the horror of the forgotten, lonely, death this quickening of a relationship is meant – I suspect – to offer us some hope and solace.
And there’s the crux. The novel suggests we live and function among cold and uncaring bureaucracies that are driven by profit and absent either individual or community. Yet, against these efficiency efforts the novel offers budding relationships and clumsy romance. As if to say we may have forgotten how to reach out to one another, how to use poetry to understanding our humanity and how to speak to one another in words not in text(s), but we are not so far gone that we can’t try to, maybe, hazard the attempt at, remembering and connecting.
In other words it’s not an overly optimistic or heartwarming story. Instead, as a sort-of administrator in higher ed myself, I find the call for connection, for real conversation, for extended empathy as at one and the same time entirely appealing and utterly insufficient. We live in the tragic gap, says Parker Palmer, between the reality we recognize and the reality we imagine as possible. In this novel we sit precisely in that space between what the university (what our society) is– profit driven – and what it could be – people driven. And from this gap we’re meant to both witness and imagine. If only we had a way to do that. Oh wait, we do: we can read.