Slate.com journalist Ellenberg, a well-known Princeton mathematician, debuts with this tale of a deranged scholar out west who devotes his life to the study of the worst poet in history.
We’re introduced to the woebegone campus of Chandler State University, founded in 1871 on the site of the gold mine where prospector Tip Chandler struck it rich. The mine played out decades ago, but the college remains: an island of intellectual mediocrity in a ghost town in the middle of the desert. Chandler is famous for only one thing: its world-renowned Department of Gravinics, dedicated to the study of a Monaco-sized country in the Carpathian Mountains that was swallowed up in the 1920s by the Soviet Union. Gravine’s most famous poet was an English expatriate named Henderson, and the world’s foremost Henderson scholar is Chandler’s own Stanley Higgs, a Chandler alum who discovered a stash of Henderson’s poetry in Berlin and returned to Chandler to codify the manuscripts. The fact that Henderson’s poetry is considered unreadable by just about everyone makes his discovery only more of an event, and soon Higgs has become a star in his own right, attracting students from both coasts and abroad. But, like many an academic superstar, Higgs has his personality quirks, the most notable being his refusal to speak. At first he’s merely taciturn, but eventually he gives up on talking altogether—with disastrous results for his lectures, of course, and for the university, which is desperate to regain the services of its most prized teacher. A surveillance squad is assigned to monitor Higgs around the clock for signs of vocal return. Meanwhile, Higgs’s dogged research into the whereabouts of Henderson (who may still be alive) begins to bear fruit. Will Henderson himself speak again before Higgs does? And, more to the point, will either one have anything worthwhile to say?
Nicely done and genuinely funny though overlong: a satire that would benefit from Polonius’s famous dictum: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”