From what you read in the papers you might reasonably conclude that the public considers the chief missions of the modern university to be the political corruption of American youth and the financial ruin of their parents. This blog eschews controversial topics, and I want to stress instead a very positive role played by our institutions of higher education that is perhaps not always sufficiently appreciated: their role as patrons of the arts. The number of writers, musicians, dramatists, and visual artists who find on our college campuses a professional niche and at least some degree of financial support is very large. Their contributions to our national cultural capital have been enormous.
That paragraph is obviously an introduction, but, you might ask, an introduction to what? Well, to what else than a semi-review of and unembarrassed sales pitch for Famous Writers I Have Known, the latest novel by James Magnuson, the Director of the Mitchener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. This hilarious romp of a book not merely exemplifies my general principle but takes it up as subject matter.
The famous writers I myself have known at my institution include Toni Morrison, who was my colleague at the time she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Joyce Carol Oates, a colleague who publishes three-hundred-page books at approximately the same rate I publish blog essays. But the first famous writer I ever knew at Princeton was Jim Magnuson. Jim and I have been good friends for nearly fifty years, and you may remember his name from previous essays over the years. Back at the beginning, in the late sixties, Jim was a Hodder Fellow and “playwright in residence” in Wilson College, a quasi-anarchist undergraduate residential college of which I was the alleged master. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.
Magnuson’s 'Famous Writers I Have Known' is equal parts crime caper and literary satire. Advice to young writers usually includes the suggestion that they choose a subject they know something about. Magnuson is the long-time Director of a prestigious program for writers at the University of Texas in Austin. The setting for this novel is a prestigious program for writers at a Texas university in someplace rather like Austin. By no means do I suggest that the novel is “autobiographical;” but I can say that the reader is likely to find the handling of setting highly convincing.
The “situation” in 'Famous Writers,' which is at least as plausible as that in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is as follows. There is a famous writer who, since publishing a single sensationally successful novel long ago, has lived in almost supernatural obscurity for decades. (Think, perhaps, for purposes of analogy, of J. D. Salinger circa 1980.) This man is invited, on a nearly clandestine basis that defers to his mania for privacy, to be a well-paid writer in residence for a term at the Texas writing program. However, the invitation is intercepted, so to speak, by a New York confidence man of bounteous intellectual invention but limited literary vocabulary. This man, Frankie Abandonato, the novel’s narrator, has very good reason to want to hide out in the obscurity of an academic institution, since he is on the lam. The very essence of the criminal cunning of the con man is to seize and exploit fortuitous opportunity, and Frankie somewhat rashly sets out to exploit this one. He thinks that masquerading as a famous writer need be no more taxing than some of his other charades as a criminal trickster.
There is both satisfying mystery and teasing suspense in Magnuson’s novel, so I shall say no more, except that the plot is as carefully handled at that of a Stoppard play, and that letters go astray even less frequently than they do in Thomas Hardy.
Magnuson makes a few gestures to satisfy the stray artsy reader for whom no novel can pass muster without at least a few “themes” and “symbols” and if possible “symbolic themes.” One good example of Magnusonian wit is to be found in the anti-hero’s name: Abandonato. In addition to satisfying the requirements of criminal ethnic stereotype, it fits in with the recurrent and quite serious themes of parental abandonment and orphanhood. (One of Magnuson’s earlier novels, Orphan Train, required him to research in some depth the history of the treatment of orphans in this country.)
But what makes 'Famous Writers' an engaging comic novel is what will probably be called its “academic satire.” It is Magnuson’s inside knowledge of academic writing programs that is the book’s greatest structural strength. He knows how fruitful such programs can be, and how richly they contribute to the American literary scene. But he also has a lively eye for potential absurdities. Pretense is not exactly the same thing as pretentiousness, but the two are pretty close together in the dictionary. At least Frankie Abandonato knows that he is a pretend writer.