Do you remember the last time the world was falling apart? I mean the time before right now. When men in powerful positions were having their least noteworthy behaviors dragged out into the cold hard light of day?
You’d be forgiven for thinking that civilization had reached a moment of great reckoning. While the occasional legal settlement still makes news, the sense of peril has passed and we’ve all moved on to more engaging topics.
Somehow, I don’t recall this late 1980s novel enjoying a “Me, Too” resurrection, which is odd because it could easily be seen as an opening shot in the war against male workplace misbehavior. And while it may have resurfaced commercially without my noticing it, I don’t notice a lot of things. For instance, I evidently carried this book through three moves before ever opening it. The only reason I can be certain of the number is the business card of a literary agent–a neighbor from long ago–was stuck in the pages.
At the outset, we meet Jacob Barker, professor of Psychology at Harvard University. Barker is in mid-career, having had the right mentor and having published experimentally-based, well-received often-cited papers on the developmental differences between males and females. He has accumulated all the accouterments of academic prestige. Top university: check. Tenure: check. Academic renown: check. A suitably prestigious office locale: check. And yet like any other schoolboy, our leading man works himself into quite a lather when he receives a summons to the Dean’s office.
The Dean would like to address a complaint with Barker. There are, it seems, some rumours. Well, not so much rumours as accusations. Not really a formal complaint, mind you, but there is this new process and administrative machinery and, anyway, it must all be a mistake and so do come over Tuesday next and we’ll hash this all out. The Dean is about as unctuous a figure as you’ll ever encounter; he put me in mind of a career diplomat I once met who oozed insincerity by the barrel.
Our, dare I say, hero spends upwards of the next hundred pages thinking back over his, ahem, career. A well-established professional, he understands exactly what’s at risk, he just doesn’t see his own hand in having created what could be, if you think about it, an ambiguous situation. I mean, as my dad the philosopher king, once said, “It takes two to bang-o.” It wasn’t … rape. It was seduction, a game between men and women as old as time itself. At least that’s what Jake would say.
And so he reminisces. There’s his first wife, with whom he has a son. There are three students who stand out in his memory. There’s his second wife an Asian-American woman much younger than he, who he met at his publisher. And there’s the woman who made him, a colleague and long-time lover who is a fellow faculty member. Importantly, she’s everything our man isn’t. Strategic, calculating, ruthless.
It’s her idea to repackage his academic writing for a broader audience inclined to a life of the mind–the types of people who read The Atlantic and The New Yorker and, well, books like this one. In so doing she turns him into sort of the un-Camille Paglia lending a contemporary, cultural gloss to his more lab-bound experimental work.
The result is every academician’s dream, a bestseller, turning the meager salary of an Ivy League academic (honestly, they’ve got big brains; shouldn’t their pay exceed that of an established but still junior associate at a white shoe law firm or top-tier investment bank?) into the grocery money while the book’s sales pay for the house near Harvard Yard and the other appurtenances of life in the higher-altitude reaches of the income distribution.
By the time of his financial success, whatever relationship Barker and his packager had has withered to the courtesies of work life. Or has it? She has a new, administrative position, with an impressive-sounding yet undefined title. As she sees it, she’s been empowered by their common employer to search out and address sexual misadventures between faculty and students.
As they say in the procedurals, there is now both opportunity and motive and although she never appears to act in anything other than a professional, although admittedly moralistic, manner, one shouldn’t rule out payback. Jake sort of has it coming even if he’s unaware students refer to him as Professor Romeo–a moniker uttered more in derision than admiration.
I’m a little unclear what Bernays really wants us to think about all this. I admit, I read Aesop‘s fables at too young an age. I’m always looking for lessons and resolution. That’s not the way of the modern novel, though, it’s job is not to instruct. Still, Barker’s behavior is such that one can’t help wondering if there is a larger authorial motive.
A blurb on the cover suggests the author brings some insight to the Lothario mind. The thrill of the chase aside, the novel doesn’t seem to pay that out. Jake has one close friend, Bennie, whom he’s known since his own undergraduate days. Bennie is a mathematician who holds a faculty position a bit down the river at MIT.
Bennie serves as the voice of reason. He’s forever pointing out how much good there is in Barker’s life. And on the subject of faculty/student extracurricular activities, he’s a near-Puritan. ” You didn’t actually do that?,” he asks when told of the accusations against his friend. He goes on to render advice that is well-known, and more bluntly stated, in coarser precincts: you don’t crap where you eat.
I won’t spoil the end but I’ll tease it. There’s a dramatic near trial. Enough humiliation is served up so that everyone can have second helpings. Bystanders suffer as much or more than principals.
And the wheel turns, as it always does, leaving only the lingering question of what constitutes justice behind.