12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, March 29, 2009
At 56, Ruth Blau is "unplaceable, and hence invisible." Author of an acclaimed trilogy of novels, good enough to be hailed by "low-pH adjectives," Ruth has not published since the birth of her son Isaac, some 20 years earlier. These days she's exclusively identified as the wife of Ben Blau, professor of philosophy at the fictional Lola Dees Institute in Spangler, Texas, "a faculty wife desperate to impress."
Ruth narrates much of Houstonian Emily Fox Gordon's debut novel, It Will Come to Me, a brisk, witty chronicle of three weeks in the life of the Blaus as they deal with a series of small dramas: the arrival of a young new writer-in- residence at Lola Dees, the installation of a new university president, the replacement of Ben's highly efficient departmental secretary, and the promise of a reconciliation with Isaac, who suffers from mental illness and is living as a homeless man.
It Will Come to Me begs to be read as a romàn a clef or, at least, a book heavily informed by Fox Gordon's autobiography. The 60-something author teaches at Rice University (the obvious model for Lola Dees, as Houston is for Spangler) and wrote about her own treatment for mental problems in 2000's Mockingbird Years. Her second book, 2006's Are You Happy?, recounted her 1950s childhood among academics in Williamstown, Mass.
Fox Gordon understands the academic milieu intimately, and Ruth's pithy observations are memorable: Tenured professors are described as "marsupials, creatures with no natural enemies who could look forward to living out their days in absolute safety;" graduate students are alternately "good children" or "a zombie army" ready to find "new campuses in which to take root and propagate."
Of course, academics are easy targets – just look at any of the dozens of satires set at universities, from Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim to Jane Smiley's Moo – and where Fox Gordon shines is in her serious depiction of the characters' concerns. Ruth and Ben are decidedly not caricatures, a flaw that plagues many academic satires. Ben's specialty in ethics wasn't chosen merely for its potential for irony: He is sincere about his job, thinking of virtue as something tangible, "not airy," but "meaty." Isaac's absence is not a metaphor of say, a lack of love in the Blaus' marriage, but a real problem.
The plot is another matter. It's too patchy, more a series of vignettes than a real story arc, and ends on such an unbelievable confluence of events that it would have been rejected by an undergraduate creative writing class. But the story itself will quickly be forgotten. What lingers is page after page of Fox Gordon's pithy, insightful observations about baby boomer angst and the (impossible) pursuit of academic happiness.