In Giles Goat-Boy (1966), John Barth used universities and academia as the launching pad for an allegory of the cold war. Written in the style of a hero’s journey and injected with liberal doses of absurdity, Barth’s story stomped across and skewered the cultural expectations, and landscape, of academic and university life — which in his case doubled as the factionalism and jingoism of competing ideological and military powers.
Where Barth’s novel was a comic, absurd, metafictional romp through a city-sized university, author D. Harlan Wilson’s Primordial: An Abstraction is a more visceral — though equally absurd and darkly funny — evisceration of academia and college life, and the strangeness of life in general. It’s unrelenting in its absurdity, it’s vitriol, it’s energy. It’s also a meditation on the redundancies of life, of academia, and of intellectual and individualistic pursuits.
“Repetition is just as good as karma,” the narrator tells us. “Once you embrace it, once you ingest it — you’re bound to wallow in it.”
The story is relayed in the first person by an unnamed professor and academic whose Ph.D. has been revoked. He had been “practicing a questionable mode of pedagogy […] writing a toxic strain of theory.” Without his degree, without his work, he has admittedly lost his identity, so he must return to university to regain both.
This is the coil around which the story is wound, and from it springs humor, farce, and social and cultural commentary, and even brief didactic and philosophical asides. Primordial is a short, minimalist novel told in deceptively simple yet beautifully rendered and subtly complex prose.
From his tyrannical control of his roommates to his dismissal of his professors, the narrator flows from one facet of college life to the next. But this isn’t your average novel, and it’s not a detailed account of the ins-and-outs of college life. Instead, it is, in a way, an evisceration of academia-as-bureaucracy.
It’s also a story willing to take jabs at boring or uninterested — probably tenured –professors. And it takes a few pot shots at the sexually promiscuous culture, too, in which the students at this university forego casual sex in lieu of making porno — in the library, the cafeteria, everywhere; a logical progression of sex obsessed, and sexually explicit, youth culture.
Primordial is, in some ways, a Kafkaesque jab at bureaucracy where the acquisition of knowledge, even trivia, becomes the narrator’s castle. Through inquiring about details of his courses and his curriculum, the narrator is confronted with confusion and scorn without getting the answers he requires. Like Kafka’s doomed K., the narrator here can’t even get a straight answer when seeking trivia, in this case about a long dead pop star:
I say, “Did Mama Cass really choke to death on a hamburger?”
The grad student looks at the Professor. The Professor looks at the Dean. The Dean looks at another Dean. The other Dean looks at another Dean. That Dean looks at the Provost. The Provost looks at the President. The President looks at his mom.
His mom shrugs.
I say, “Well what good are you people? What good is any of this?” I gesticulate at the University.
One subtext that sticks out is the juxtaposition of violence and academia, as if Wilson, or the narrator, is lobbing complaints against the diminished cultural stature of intellectualism and academia in favor of violence and war. The violence is also what you might expect when you force a brute — whether it’s a homo sapien or a simian — into a rationalized, institutional setting.
The violence largely springs from the once-and-future academic himself: the unnamed narrator. Muscular, he can bench 300 pounds, and he sticks to strict exercise and dietary habits. He also possesses the temper of a banshee on meth.
In many ways, he’s like a cross between Raoul Duke, Henry Rollins, and Jacques Lacan. He possesses a fiery intellect and an inability to refrain from ridiculing, or even assaulting, those he feels worthy. He is, in a sense, the muscular, short-tempered incarnation of Ignatius J. Reilly — if Sam Peckinpah had directed an adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces.
Despite its aggression, Primordial is funny, with dialogue veering into Marx Brothers, Monty Python, and Donald Barthelme-esque territory, but devoid of puns or other cheap humor. It’s farcical but not whimsical or, the dread of all dreads, zany. It’s funny the way Hunter S. Thompson was funny: vicious, cruel, aggressive. This book possesses the spirit of farce absent the works of a writer like Thompson.
Also, like the works of a writer like Thompson, or even Anthony Burgess, much of the humor is born out of a combination of the situation and the character of the narrator himself:
Sometimes, when I am revising my manuscripts, I forget to breath. My roommates have to remind me. I don’t like it. I don’t like them to talk at all. But they see my face go red and then gray and finally purple and despite how much they hate me they can’t shoulder the burden of my potential death. Stockholm Syndrome.
Some of them enjoy it when I flog them.
One of them asks for it.
I don’t enjoy flogging people. Not for any reason. But the Law is the Law and somebody must uphold it.
I use a cat o’ nine tails that I purchased as a Boy Scout. I can’t remember where I purchased it. But I had my uniform on when I gave the cashier my bills and coins.
I never stop flogging my roommates until I draw blood and they are sufficiently terrorized, i.e., happy.
School life and the rigors of academic pursuits are presented vaguely — an abstraction. Work is never mentioned in detail. Classes are never mentioned in detail. This vagueness is possibly a commentary on the routine, the redundancy, of college life; or, perhaps the narrator is too narcissistic or solipsistic to dwell on anything other than himself: this is a fiercely subjective narrative.
Classrooms, although presented vaguely, are still presented as farcical, where the farce is the product of the narrator’s aggressive personality and the professors’ tired routines. He beats and bullies teachers, he dismisses or bullies students; and when he gets on with students, he ignores everything around him in lieu of conversation, even if it disrupts class. Also throughout the novel, there’s an underlying shot at the state of the hierarchy of modern, corporate-influenced universities.
In the hands of a lesser writer, a book like this might be bloated and long winded and tangential. But in Wilson’s hands, it’s navigated brilliantly and smoothly by Wilson’s mastery of the craft and his sparse, concise prose.
At its core, Primordial is an existential examination of life, knowledge, and the pursuit of what once seemed graspable. Memories pop into the narrator’s mind, and they tend to show him as vulnerable, naïve, uncertain. On the rare occasion he lets down his guard, he reveals himself as confused and as vulnerable as everyone else. “I write because I’m weak!” he shouts at one point.
And though, like K. in Kafka’s The Castle, or like George Giles in Barth’s magnum opus, the narrator continues to pursue a goal not likely attainable, and although his anger and aggression more often than not defines him, he continues his quest. For in the end, the quest is all he has. It defines him. After losing his Ph.D., his identity, what else does he have left?
“Most of adult life is spent discovering the mystery of how very little you matter,” he says early in the novel. And it’s a profound line smuggled into a fierce, aggressive, and philosophical gem of a novel, which is one of the best books of the year.