Suzette Mayr’s new novel is a rollicking satire of academic life set in a fictional (but oddly familiar) western Canadian university called Inivea. The title character confesses her misguided belief that now that she has been awarded tenure, “she could intellectually and even literally wear pyjamas to work every day and no one would care: she would be free! But post-tenure Elysium was a rabbit on a greyhound racetrack.” Indeed, Dr. Edith Vane is beset by lazy entitled undergrads, treacherous grad students, an admin staff so uncaring they’re downright sadistic, a new dean (brought in as part of the EnhanceUs program) who is far more interested in schmoozing corporate donors than running his department, and an array of colleagues who range from unhinged to incompetent to pure evil.
These difficulties begin to have an unfortunate effect on Edith’s mental state: the novel’s opening hints at a malevolent spirit within the building that houses the English department, exemplified by red-eyed feral jackrabbits without and within. But as the tale goes on, this aura of decay develops into a full-blown assault by the building upon its occupants—maggots fall from ceilings; sinkholes swallow up people and cars. In the midst of all this, Edith struggles to get her marking done, prep her classes and complete her paperwork. At the same time, she is conducting an affair with an older divorcée she met in a coffee bar, and celebrating the upcoming publication of her book on the little-known prairie author Beulah Crump-Withers. To manage the stress, Edith relies heavily on counselling offered by Vivienne, a phone therapist supplied by the university’s Balance Well program (though over time it’s unclear if Vivienne is a person or an app).
For this reader, the crumbling of the physical structures around Edith are both cause and manifestation of her own psychological meltdown. For example, there’s a scene in which her villainous colleague Lesley Hughes, not content with having sabotaged Edith in grad school, has the audacity to steal credit for her work; at the moment when Lesley’s betrayal pulverizes what’s left of Edith’s self-possession, the room they are standing in literally collapses as well. Poor Edith: “All she has ever wanted to do is read books. Write books. Talk about, sleep with, breathe, shit and eat books. That’s why she thought she’d chosen the right job, because understanding books is what professors do.” In a perfect world, yes. But not in Edith’s world, which despite the supernatural hijinks bears an uncanny resemblance to the corporatized, bureaucracy-laden, backstabbing real world of the modern university.
—JoAnn McCaig taught university English but now owns a bookstore.