John L’Heureux’s seventh novel is being promoted by its publisher as an academic satire. This is a bit like calling Moby Dick a whaling yarn: true, but somewhat less than the full truth.
The Handmaid of Desire concerns the English Department of an unnamed university in California. The faculty is divided into two camps: fools and Turks. The fools are the older teachers, who actually enjoy literature. The Turks (excuse me, but isn’t this tag a bit, er, “insensitive”? I bet the Turkish-American Students’ Association is marching on Mr L’Heureux’s office even as I write) are the younger set, who refer to literature as “discursive practices,” and to whom all texts — “Flaubert’s Bovary or … the label on a Campbell’s soup can” — are of equal interest.
Leader of the Turks is Professor Zachary Kurtz, a literary descendant of the ineffable Morris Zapp in David Lodge’s Changing Places. Kurtz is plotting to enthrone himself as Chairman of a renamed “Department of Theory and Discourse.” He has invited noted theorist Olga Kominska to the university for an academic quarter, planning to make her his tool. Front man for Kurtz’s coup will be Robbie Richter, a fool by age and inclination whose efforts to absorb literary theory are driving him to a nervous breakdown.
Kurtz and his colleagues are all prisoners of desire. Kurtz himself wants power, of course. Maddy Barker, who is a lesbian, suffers from “secret heterosexual urges for which she hated herself.” Kurtz’s wife wants to be rich. Fat fool Tortorisi wants tenure. Several of the faculty hanker for parenthood. Many of these desires are, of course, politically incorrect.
All this is sufficiently clever and funny, and the reader who goes to this book looking for a send-up of campus politics will be well rewarded. However, there is more going on here than satire.
Whatever Kurtz’s plans for Olga are, she herself has other ideas. Her ideas, in fact, are what the book is mainly about. There are hints that Olga is writing a campus novel, using these new colleagues of hers as dramatis personae. Of this one we read that she will “fit him in”; of that one that she has “crossed him out.” She seems to be able to manipulate them, to divine their innermost fears and desires, and to give them what they think they want — hence the book’s title. Kurtz’s wife does indeed get rich, Maddy lays the campus stud, and so on. Even Kurtz’s grand scheme achieves a kind of fruition, though with a very L’Heureuxian twist.
These self-referential murmurings become even harder to ignore when Olga takes Tortorisi under her wing, and shows him how to get tenure: he must intimidate the deans by writing a satirical novel about the faculty! By this point one is not very surprised to catch sight of the author himself. Contemplating her own work in progress, Olga foresees that: “At its heart there must stand an act of utter evil and absurdity … It must proceed from love gone wrong …” Which rather nicely adumbrates the last four novels of John L’Heureux.
So what is going on here? Or, as Kurtz asks of Olga: “Who are you? What are you?” Is this some elaborate spoof of literary theory? Is Mr L’Heureux deliberately blurring the accustomed boundaries between author, reader and text? Or what?
Well, possibly. So far as literary theory is concerned, this reviewer is George the First: I know nothing, and I desire to know nothing. Never having been seized by the urge to “deconstruct” any “text,” I am, as it were, epistemologically challenged. I read novels for the old-fashioned reasons: to amuse myself and to satisfy my craving for an affirmation of moral order. So perhaps I have missed Mr L’Heureux’s main point; but I do not think so.
Olga is, in fact, a supernatural agent, with odd powers of clairvoyance into the lives of those around her. They are her creatures — though possessed of free will, liable to surprise her, and capable of evil.
Yet Olga herself, though creator, is also of course a creation, who, at the very end, with a shrug of indifference to that foreseen act of evil, dwindles away like the Cheshire Cat “until she was no more than a mote in the eye of the last beholder.” Here, in the book’s penultimate paragraph, we glimpse at last the fil rouge that runs through all Mr L’Heureux’s fiction. “Beholder,” or “believer”? Mr L’Heureux was seventeen years a Jesuit. His first novel dealt with a young Jesuit who endures a crisis of faith, and all his work since then has been a lament for the lost assurances of theodicy.
Thus, if I have got it right, The Handmaid of Desire is a satire wrapped around an allegory; a subtle literary joke, through which shines, like Conrad’s light in the mist — Mr L’Heureux artfully plants this image in our minds early on — the unique intelligence of a deeply thoughtful, intensely serious man.