Paul Scott Stanfield reviews a campus novel…er…poem.
Srikanth Reddy, Underworld Lit (Wave Books, 2020), 224pp.
For a few generations now, many writers have been earning the steadier part of their income by university teaching. Among fiction writers, this development has led to the flowering of the campus novel, with its distinguished contributions from Randall Jarrell, May Sarton, David Lodge, Michael Chabon, Jane Smiley, and Richard Russo, and even some masterpieces in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, and John Williams’s Stoner.
Among poets, the effects of this migration to campuses are harder to discern. An increasing number of poetry collections have an academic cast, with scholarly apparatuses and explanations of methodologies, but only rarely do they reflect the poet’s situation as a faculty member. Srikanth Reddy’s new book, however, does exactly that. Underworld Lit is a book-length poem with a more than passing resemblance to the campus novel, and it may well rank as one of the masterpieces.
The “I” of the book teaches “Introduction to the Underworld,” a course in comparative mythology that promises, in its catalog description, “to introduce students to the posthumous disciplinary regimes of various cultures, and to help them develop the communication skills that are crucial for success in today’s global marketplace.” Married with a young daughter, our unnamed faculty member is himself subject to a couple of disciplinary regimes: the medical, since he has recently developed a melanoma, and the academic, since he is untenured. Like the recently dead, he stands before judges whose procedures are mysterious and whose pronouncements are final—and he stands before not just one bar, but two.
He has pinned some of his professional hopes on a translation project. He has chosen one of the Chinese folk tales collected and translated into French by Léon Wieger, Jesuit priest and scholar, a tale of one of the afterlife’s disciplinary regimes. Through the means of a magic mirror, magistrate’s assistant Chen is called to account for a military atrocity ordered by General X against a troop of rebels in a territory Chen governed two hundred years and two lives ago. What responsibility does Chen bear, and what would be an appropriate punishment? Chen does not bear full responsibility, the judge decides, but does bear some, and so in his next reincarnation will be a girl.
The project poses a significant challenge since, somewhat like Don DeLillo’s Jack Gladney, the Hitler Studies professor in White Noise who does not read German, our hero does not know Chinese. He must work from Wieger’s translation, relying on a pocket Larousse dictionary, a necessity that raises additional hurdles. One character in Wieger’s translation is referred to as a “satellite,” which could mean “objet astronomique en orbite” (astronomical object in orbit) or the more likely “état vassal” (one of vassal status) but could also mean “escalier motorisé de l’aéroport” (motorized staircase at an airport). Hence an escalier motorisé begins to appear (“‘I thought you were dead,’ grumbled the portable gateway equipment, wheeling closer”) in the new adventures of Chen that our hero begins to write. Defying space and time—and why not, given the possibilities of reincarnation?—the Ming administrator appears in Central America in the 1980s and then in Egypt during the Arab Spring. Wherever he goes, whatever surreal twists occur, he finds himself involved again with resistance and rebellion, which are met again with pitiless repression.
Reddy renders the disciplinary regimes of the campus with so keen an ear that his parodies could pass for documentary realism. We get student evaluations (“As far as classes go, it was an almost painless experience”), peer evaluations (a trying-to-be-helpful senior colleague tells our hero that the department fears his project is “undertheorized”), and quizzes (“To our knowledge, the river of ________ has no name”). But things end well, or as well as the hedged language of higher education administration permits: “Our evaluators are satisfied that your work meets the minimal requirements for continuation of your existence on faculty.”
It looks like his earthly existence will continue for a while, too. The melanoma—his “birthmark gone bad”—sends him off scrutinizing other inscrutable shapes (Rorschach blots, map outlines, his pre-school daughter Mira’s paintings) but turns out not to be an indicator of anything worse (“The thyroid gland is grossly normal,” the lab report reassures him).
Underworld Lit abounds in witty allusion. The book’s three main parts (“Fall Term,” “Winter Term,” and “Spring Term”) have thirty-three sections apiece, paying tribute to Dante’s contribution to the literature of the afterlife, and Homer’s most famous tag is gloriously reinvented: “Dawn with her pink frosted fingernails raked away night’s remains.” We also get Mira making an allusion most American parents will recognize, “Goodnight bears, goodnight chairs,” at the very moment our hero discovers his own book, with an effusive inscription to a senior colleague, in a used book store.
Mira, indeed, is a welcome ray of light on more than one occasion. Her unstoppable spontaneous creativity in both paint and language suggests that magistrate’s assistant Chen might even be better off as a little girl.
The warmth of the passages devoted to our hero’s family may be the most appealing aspect of the book, a warmth that somehow blends happily with the anxiety of his two narrow escapes and the tartness of the book’s satire. This surprising but successful combination of elements makes Underworld Lit a one-of-a-kind pleasure.
Paul Scott Stanfield was educated at Grinnell College and Northwestern University, and has been a member of the English Department at Nebraska Wesleyan University since 1989. He is the author of Yeats and Politics in the 1930s and of articles on Yeats, other Irish poets, and Wyndham Lewis.