“I’m a pariah and an outpatient,” says Professor Daniel Wellington, the narrator of Professor Lawrence Douglas’s debut novel, The Catastrophist (just out from Other Press). A respected art historian specializing in Holocaust memorials, Wellington gets tenure, but his life is otherwise heading for a series of spectacular tailspins—mortifying, seemingly unstoppable, and often hilarious. On the verge of fatherhood, he’s also on the verge of not one but two extracurricular affairs, and in a giddy moment blabs to a receptive German press that he’s the child of survivors (he isn’t). Is this any way for a scholar—our purest practitioner of the life of the mind—to behave?
The Catastrophist is a particularly potent example of the academic (or campus) novel (or satire), a loose-limbed genre that could be said to embrace everything from Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin and Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe (which have protagonist profs) to Don DeLillo’s End Zone and Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons (which refract student life), with much in between. But Douglas, who teaches at Amherst College’s Department of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought, is wary of the label. “I’ve read Lucky Jim,” he tells the Voice, referring to Kingsley Amis’s legendary skewering of Homo academicus, “which I confess I did not love. I’ve never read a word of David Lodge.” In a piece he wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education, he bemoans the way early readers of The Catastrophist invariably tagged it as a variation on Amis’s farce. (One saw it as homage to Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, which Douglas has never read.) But like a true academic, he recognizes how these “misreads” are in fact just the sort of thing he champions in his class on interpretation, in which he inveighs against ” ‘intentionalism,’ the theory that a text should be read with the goal of recovering the intentions of its author.”
In other words: It doesn’t matter what the author wants. Still, Douglas’s own defensiveness suggests that he’s after more mournful notes beneath much of the surface comedy. He sees The Catastrophist as a “book of male unraveling” in the tradition of David Gates’s Jernigan or Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter (“snafu stories, about protagonists who do stupid things in interesting ways”), and also cites Knut Hamsun’s Hunger as a model, a “fiction in which the narrator announces the intention of doing one thing, announcing it with great clarity, perception, and introspection—and then goes ahead and does the exact opposite.” A comparable tension fuels The Catastrophist, as Wellington’s scholarly brilliance (on display in a bravura tour through the history of war monuments) throws his moral fuck-ups into high relief. His justifications for bad behavior are perilously argued and all too human.
“I enjoy academic writing,” Douglas says, “but I am more proud of the novel than any academic work I have done.” At Yale Law School, “I wrote this paper on how judges interpret texts and how literary scholars interpret texts,” which got him involved in editing The Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities. Offered a corporate job after graduation in 1989, he instead joined Amherst’s new undergraduate legal-studies program. He now had to align his novel-writing ambitions with the peculiar cycle of academic life. He began The Catastrophist during sabbatical, didn’t touch it for an entire academic year, worked on it over the summer and through some of the following academic year, and put the final touches during a third summer—a three-year process in which about half of the time was spent in actual writing.
“In doing academic work,” Douglas says, “I have to kind of resist the impulse to make things up.” (Adding, with a laugh, that he always resists.) In the back of his mind during the novel’s conception was Joseph Ellis, the popular Mount Holyoke history professor and bestselling author who claimed to have seen action in Vietnam. After Ellis won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for Founding Brothers, he hit a career low: The Boston Globe discovered that his military record was bogus—as was the claim that upon his return he joined the anti-war movement. Similarly, Wellington at his professional zenith spontaneously tells a useless falsehood that will come back to shame him.
Another real-life professor at an area institution also provided inspiration. Though Douglas’s nonfiction includes The Memory of Judgment: Making of Law and History in the Trials of the Holocaust (2001), he based Wellington’s specific expertise on the work of his friend James E. Young, a professor of Judaic and Near Eastern studies at UMass-Amherst, who was on the 1997 commission that selected the design for Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Young (who enjoyed The Catastrophist) says his books The Texture of Memory (1993) and At Memory’s Edge (2000) provided the basis for the “conceptual discussions” Wellington engages in. As if loaning his CV wasn’t generous enough, Young also suggested the novel’s final title, which he originally conceived of for a nonfiction work of his own, subtitled “The Confessions of a Designated Mourner.”
The Catastrophist‘s working title was Mr. Happy.
For all of Wellington’s anxieties (he’s a self-confessed futurephobe) and the disastrous decisions they lead to, as a narrator he’s wonderful company, precise and droll in his observations. An ex-wife’s paintings are “so profoundly passé as to be cutting edge”; his disturbingly accommodating therapist has a sparsely populated bookcase with titles that “seemed like curiosities of an early-1970s Santa Cruz education.” His writing process involves “star[ing] at a single sentence until the luminous signifiers disassembled themselves into phonetic mush. A serviceable clause would present itself in my mind just as the screen saver activated, blotting out text and idea, causing me to punish the mouse. After hours of this, I’d go online, and pretending to be a sociologist, pose the question to myself: How easily can a student gain access to cyber pornography?” Freaked out by the prospect of becoming a father, he relates: “That night I dreamt that R. gave birth to a shrimp.”
Like Jack Gladney (founder of Hitler Studies) in DeLillo’s White Noise and William Kohler (author of Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany) in William H. Gass’s The Tunnel, Wellington is a scholar whose livelihood is linked to the 20th century’s most notorious catastrophe. Douglas, in playing up Wellington’s full personal and professional catastrophe, is performing a delicate balancing act: Of course the early-midlife crisis of a New England academic shouldn’t be uttered in the same breath as the Holocaust . . . but how interesting that the German woman he carries on an extended (and unprecedented) flirtation with has a name that translates to slaughter heap.
Up till now, reviewers seem to have missed a subtle but extremely important detail, tucked away in The Catastrophist‘s final, apparently buoyant pages, that masterfully merges micro and macro, the grimness and occasional glory of everyday life with history writ large. Rather than spoil the revelation, I’ll simply urge the curious reader to pay close attention to when the story unfolds, and suggest that this perfectly placed clue is something that Nabokov—whose Pnin, that most sublime of academic novels, Douglas name-checks—would have savored.