Breaking the Surface
The ‘60s had made so many casualties . . .
Few literary genres are as insular and self-absorbed as the academic novel, which is usually written by, about, and for academics and too often locates threadbare humor in the obscurity of disciplines and the narrow-minded adamancy of tenured professors. Not that academia is above reproach or even unpopular as a subject matter, but in some writers’ hands, it becomes an easy target for esoteric satire that excludes everyone not associated with an educational institution.
But a few academic novels begin in higher education and at least try to reach outward to find meaning and metaphor at the foot of the ivory tower: Don DeLillo’s White Noise, for instance, or Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain, or even Nabokov’s Pnin. And now we have Tom Piazza’s My Cold War, which begins at the fictional Hollister College in Connecticut and, about halfway through, leaves its cushy setting for more emotionally rewarding territory.
“I was one of the first academics to treat the Cold War as pure phenomena without getting into the motives of either side, to examine its products—its flora, so to speak—without getting caught up in history per se, in a story,” says John Delano, the novel’s narrator. “I looked exclusively at the surfaces of the Cold War, with the idea that the surfaces would tell you things about what was going on that you would lose sight of as you went deeper and deeper into strategy, politics, elections, treaties, all the messy anatomy of history.”
As the book begins, Delano is on sabbatical to finish a book that will confront the 1960s through its most iconic images. But despite his popularity as a professor and his calm home life—he’s married to a labor organizer named Val, who never really feels entirely real—Delano is having trouble completing the project. As he grapples with the major events of the 1960s—Kennedy’s assassination, Dylan goes electric, etc.—he is barraged by his own memories, which crowd his mind and blur the boundaries between personal and public history.
As a phenomenologist, Delano recounts his childhood and family life in the same way he explores public history: by plundering the surfaces and small events for meaning. Its a useful fictional approach, too: Piazza’s prose feels breezy and fluid, even when it’s describing heady, abstract ideas, as if he’s trying purposefully not to delve too deep.
As it progresses, however, My Cold War becomes obsessed with breaking through those surfaces and finding the larger truths beyond. Even as it employs phenomenology as a fictional device, this academic novel seems to refute its key ideas as mere defenses against the world. Surfaces may hold meaning, but they are still merely surfaces.
While he mostly skirts the clichés of the academic novel, Piazza alludes to his predecessors in the genre, most notably DeLillo and Roth. For example, Delanos position at Hollister is “Professor of History/Lecturer in Cold War Studies—a department I started at Hollister and of which I am the entire faculty.” It echoes Jack Gladneys position as chairman and sole member of “the department of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill” in White Noise.
As well, Piazza’s prose often mimics DeLillo’s (“The East is History; the West is . . . what? Possibility.”), and he names a black character Coleman Silsbee, which recalls the protagonist of The Human Stain, Coleman Silk.
It’s difficult to know how aware Piazza is of these similarities, but he deserves the benefit of the doubt: halfway through the novel, he lets his frustrated professor escape the ivory tower and venture into real America. Delano begins to act instead of merely watch, risk instead of analyze, and his valiant, yet vain, attempts to break through the surfaces of his life fuel the novel’s intense climax. More than that, getting away from Hollister plays up the isolation and separation of academia from the very things it purports to study. If My Cold War is a novel of ideas—and it is—Piazza externalizes those concepts rather than internalizing them, and he plays them out on the very same land that inspired them: America.
Once that climax runs its course, however, there are some 30 or 40 pages left in My Cold War, and Piazza overburdens them with a turn of events that leaves his narrator utterly alone but that feels utterly contrived. Delano’s book-ending pilgrimage likewise feels long-winded and rambling, but to Piazza’s credit, the character has earned the right to linger on his memories, to tell us every suburb and street name. The longing and loss Piazza communicates are anything but academic.