Novelist Farewell (In the Lighthouse, 2012, etc.) gathers together a covey of academics (and one outsider) who are literally on the trail of the mysterious Henry Radcliff, a Victorian novelist.
Radcliff wrote only one book, and there is only one extant copy. (A secretive collector allowed that one copy to be reprinted and then squirreled the original back away.) Brendan Jones, a crude, outspoken American journalist, has written a biography of Radcliff. Dame Agatha Peel, doyenne of British biographers, is working on her own Radcliff biography. The rest are a motley crew—young professorial strivers, mumbling older ones, hangers-on and a mysterious Frenchwoman. The narrator and protagonist is Sarah Bolton, an assistant professor at a backwater college in Ohio, who is pinning her tenure hopes on her feminist Radcliff scholarship. But she becomes more and more conflicted as the tour proceeds and also as she is drawn, against her best instincts, to bearlike philistine Jones. This is as much Sarah’s journey of self-discovery as it is a pursuit of Henry Radcliff. Jones and the egotistical Dame Agatha are of course the perfect foils for one another, and most of the others have their own agendas as they traipse across the continent visiting places that Prince Roniakowski, Radcliff’s romantic hero, had blessed with his presence. These people often confuse fiction and reality, take themselves much too seriously and generally behave like asses. Along the way, the only portrait of Radcliff seems to come to light, and a letter (in his totally illegible handwriting) has been found. More than that, it would be unfair to reveal, except that there is a really startling revelation toward the end, followed, possibly, by a final twist. Farewell is wicked good: The first chapter, for example, is a tour de force in perceptive writing that reveals Sarah despite herself.
A clever contribution to that popular subgenre, the satirical academic novel.