Mandy Berman, The Learning Curve (New York: Random House, 2019) is an interesting combination of the professor-focused academic novel and the student-focused campus novel. The main characters are four roommates at Buchanan College, a prestigious liberal arts college, and particularly two of them, Fiona and Liv. Fiona is troubled (her sister died unexpectedly at 13) and needy; Liv is beautiful, rich and self-assured. The third angle of the triangle is provided by Oliver Ash, a visiting professor with a bad reputation (fired from Columbia for sleeping with a 17-year-old student) and a wife back in Europe. The two young women compete to attract Oliver’s affections, though he mostly maintains the proper professional gravitas. The fourth important character is the wife, Simone, another professor, who is spending an academic year on a research project in Berlin, annoyed by Oliver’s absence (they have a small child) and frustrated by scholarly obstacles. The Learning Curve is much more informative on undergraduate life, the drinking and sexual activities of college students, than on the academic life, and its scenes set in Paris are more vivid than those in Pennsylvania. The sex plot is handled in an original way and Berman’s characters are lively enough, if occasionally irritating in their smug complacency.
Paul Ewen’s Francis Plug: Writer in Residence is a brilliant addition to the corpus of academic novels focusing on creative writing teachers. Necessary background: Ewen’s previous novel was called Francis Plug: How to Be a Public Author. In it Francis decides to “study the ways of the literary event,” in preparation for his own career as a successful writer. Plug is an alcoholic gardener who turns up at public appearances by many Booker Prize winners, where he drinks all the wine he can get and makes bewildering conversation with the authors (telling Anne Enright he likes to sit backwards on the toilet to use the tank as a reading platform, for instance). That was 2014.
As the new book opens Francis is in even worse shape, living in an unheated garage, but he is a published author. On the strength of that fact he is appointed Writer in Residence at the University of Greenwich (a position that Paul Ewen holds in real life). Taking the “in residence” language seriously, he secretly moves himself into one of the historic buildings at the university, makes himself known, but sometimes unwelcome, at all the local pubs, and studiously avoids doing the work expected of an academic. Planning his next book, he settles on an academic novel set at the University of Greenwich, though his ideas include nuclear combat and flying beasts. Forced to teach a class, he hauls a smelly tire out of the Thames and drags it into class, insisting it is a metaphor. The students are not impressed:
Student: Wasn’t this lecture supposed to be about characterization?
FP: Was it? Oh. [Pause.] He look, when you bounce up and down on this tyre, it’s like a see-saw landing pad.
With his rotten breath, smelly clothes, ignorance of academic expectations and literary technique, and powerful thirst, Francis Plug is everything a writer in residence is not.
This novel is inventive and hilarious; it not only is an academic novel, but, as Francis thinks about writing an academic novel and speaks quite comprehensively about others in the genre, it is a kind of wacky survey of the genre.
Reviewed by Professor Merritt Moseley