A creative writing professor soldiers through a semester, uncertain of his own capacity to write or teach.
This sequel to Downing’s 1997 novel, Perfect Agreement, revisits Mark, a teacher at a Massachusetts college who guides a clutch of undergrads through the essentials of point of view, style, and metaphor. But he lacks much in the way of authority or even assertiveness. He cedes much of the control of the writing workshop to an unnamed professor with whom he co-teaches it, feels listless at home (his partner is working overseas), and is growing weary of both academic bureaucracy (he’s procrastinating on writing an assigned memo for a committee he serves on) and intramural tensions (the adjuncts are organizing). All of this lassitude gives the novel a distinct lack of body heat, especially in the early chapters, where much of the narrative excitement comes from the peculiarities of Mark's writing exercises: Write a scene using only one-syllable words, write about a car crash that kills a person, etc. Eventually the book snaps into the seriocomic groove that the campus novel typically demands, from Mark’s struggle to complete his own assignments to his hailing an Uber that turns out to be driven by one of the college’s ill-paid adjuncts. Some late-breaking plot twists, involving an ailing student and the professor’s true identity, shed some light on Mark’s disconnection from himself. But the prevailing mood is ambivalence: “You could call this fear of success or fear of failure. You could say that Mark was embarrassed by his ambitions or unequal to them.” That kind of wheel-spinning drains the action from the story. And as any writing teacher will tell you, the success of a story rests on the action that its central character brings to it.
Downing sets the town-and-gown scenery well, but there’s an irony in a hero advocating for active writing in such a static environment.