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The Red Word

By Sarah Henstra

ECW Press, 400 pages, $19.95

Black Star

By Maureen Medved

Anvil Press, 224 pages, $20

Also discussed:

Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall

By Suzette Mayr

Coach House Books, 224 pages, $18.95

“I had pinched down my rage into a tiny point and secreted it deep inside myself with the other tiny points that threatened to kill me if I moved.”

There are many ways to interpret the title of Maureen Medved’s latest novel: a black comedy, an anti-star, the shape of the rage Professor Del Hanks carries inside her.

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Black Star is one of two Canadian campus novels published this year, the other being Sarah Henstra’s The Red Word, to comment on sexual assault at university. Stylistically innovative, both come at this topic from radically different angles, yet both leave the reader with a sense of schools being silently complicit in sexual violence.

The campus novel makes for an odd genre because what defines it is place. Often you see "campus novel” and “academic novel” used interchangeably (admittedly, there’s a lot of overlap), but there are many examples of novels about academics that barely set down on university grounds. To me, what makes for a true campus novel is its concern with the functioning of a university, whether from the perspective of students, instructors or staff.

That emphasis on place gives the campus novel a freewheeling style. Unlike how we might often think of genre as having a set of aesthetic hallmarks or stylistic conventions, the campus novel is free to borrow and mix. Satire has been prevalent from the beginning. Many have tied the dawn of the genre to the postwar popularization of higher education, and as a result, satiric authors playing up the apparent contradictions of these places that had recently entered the popular consciousness. Another subgenre finds the school grounds a great place for a murder.

Suzette Mayr’s Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, published last year, follows in the satiric tradition, with elements of gothic horror. That might sound like an unlikely combo, but it works because of the source material. You have to laugh at Mayr’s fictional University of Inivea – caught, like almost every university in Canada, in a neoliberal competition for resources – otherwise you’ll just be horrified. Beneath the satiric veneer (in Inivea’s euphemism-laden admin-speak, recalcitrant professors are refreshed) is a grim reality: Mayr wrote this novel after noticing how many of her colleagues were being made literally sick by the demands of modern academia. In the novel this takes the form of malevolent brutalist architecture killing off the arts faculty.

We also see that uninhibited borrowing of style in The Red Word and Black Star. Where Mayr describes the university building as a site for satiric horror, Henstra writes of the campus as the subject of classical ode; while for Medved, a long unravelling beginning in a professor’s office ends in a psychological thriller about the damage done.

Notably, all three authors come to these campus narratives having taught at Canadian schools. Medved is associate professor in the creative writing program at the University of British Columbia; Henstra and Mayr are both associate professors of English, at Ryerson University and the University of Calgary, respectively.

It’s possibly also a coincidence that three of CanLit’s most trenchant recent critiques of institutions of higher learning (at least in fiction form) all also happen to be by women. On the other hand, consider all the controversies at Canadian schools these past few years that have involved gender: so-called “men’s rights”; the respectful use of pronouns; universities’ handling of sexual harassment and assault allegations, including those against professors in the creative writing schools at UBC and Concordia. The Red Word and Black Star both speak to the era of #metoo.

Of these, The Red Word may come closest to a traditional campus novel, if only because its setting, an Ivy League school in the mid-1990s, is a representation of university life now familiar to us. Henstra’s project in a way is to show it to us anew, and to do that she conversely draws upon the very old, including Greek mythology, Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War.

On its surface, The Red Word is the story of an on-campus battle of the sexes. Its subject, however, is the danger of personal myth. “The trouble with myth is the way it shirks blame,” our narrator says in the opening pages, and Karen should know: She’s had a decade and a half to think about her portion of responsibility for the events of her sophomore year. Forced to attend a conference in the town of her alma mater, Karen faces a reunion and a reckoning with her past.

Cut to September, 1995: On returning to school from a summer of tree planting, Karen finds a home at “Raghurst,” a house of student feminists enthralled by the instructor for the course Women and Myth – everyone except Dyann, who eschews theory for action. Raghurst is the hub of feminist activism on campus and Karen’s new housemates bring her up to speed on their main target that year, the fraternities. Specifically: Gamma Beta Chi, the frat featured most prominently on the Wall of Shame at the Women’s Centre. It seems the frat brothers act with impunity. Assaults by frat brothers never result in criminal charges or academic punishment. So the Raghurst women take action on the belief the ends will justify their means. By novel’s end, their plan will have unintended, tragic consequences.

Henstra fondly recreates the on-campus feminism of a particular time and place, employing a style imitating Homer (complete with compound adjectives: “soulwithered,” “guiltpinned,” “lazylaughing”) to elevate the world of campus politics to the mythic. The Raghurst version of feminism has its limits: the Students of Colour Alliance is wary of the anti-frat campaign, for reasons all-white Raghurst hadn’t considered. The Red Word is additionally a novel about some timeless aspects of student life, from the youthful embrace of new ideas to the influence of group dynamics. An epic catalogue describes all the forms of self-expression at a potluck. All this exalting language perfectly captures the self-importance of youth and, simultaneously, nostalgia for the age when everything could mean so much.

“Rape” is the red word of the novel’s title – “a ravenous word … double-edged,” the word that leads the Raghurst women into battle. A reader might look at the events of The Red Word and wonder what the novel says about similar fights on today’s campuses. In representing one instance of extremism, Henstra isn’t passing judgment on today’s student feminists – if anything, she’s pointing out that this has been a long fight. Extremism is not the only form of violence. Karen wants to be a neutral observer, to “live in both camps and travel unhindered between,” but this turns out to be disastrous for those around her: “I thought this meant freedom,” she reflects. “Instead it meant murder.”

The Red Word leaves us considering the casualties of this battle, the imperfect victims: “wasn’t the imperfect victim exactly the victim we should champion most?”

The imperfect victim is subject and narrator of Maureen Medved’s Black Star, Medved’s first novel since 1998’s The Tracey Fragments. Professor Del Hanks is on the verge of tenure despite not yet having finished her second book (still, after a decade) when two events threaten to topple her plans. The first of these is incoming adjunct Helen LeBec, who shouldn’t be a threat to Del’s prospects yet is perfect for the job. The second is a young man, presumably homeless, living under the stairs of a university building. Worried that responding to him in any way could jeopardize her promotion, Del ignores him.

Del is acerbic, blunt, prickly, resentful of others’ successes and mean to pregnant women. In other words, unlikeable. As readers, we can gleefully share in Del’s misanthropy, but only because it will never be directed at us.

Like Dr. Edith Vane, Medved’s novel shows a department falling into psychotic chaos, caused by the labour expectations of the academic market. If Del can’t achieve tenure, she imagines being sucked back into her hometown, called Slaughter, a place almost as fun as its name suggests. Black Star is a black comedy turned psychological thriller filled with dark ironies:

Del's area is moral philosophy. Her therapist tells her: “You aren’t good with moral ambiguity.”

Del’s book is to be titled The Catastrophic Decision, about “the decision as catalyst for personal and professional devastation.” Del makes one catastrophic decision after another, beginning with what to do about the boy under the stairs.

It is said of Helen LeBec: “That’s the kind of hire who is a department killer.” Del tells this story while sitting over a dying body.

Explaining too much of this novel risks taking away one of its principal pleasures, which is trying to piece together what is really going on in the world outside this mind coming undone under extreme stress. Is Del paranoid about her prospects or is she truly a fraud? Is the push for tenure simply driving her insane? All of the above?

At a department meeting LeBec praises the feminist perspective in Del’s first book ­– praise Del immediately rejects: there is no feminist perspective in her work. Whether Del sees it or not, there is a feminist perspective to the story of her unravelling.

Del is an untrustworthy narrator about everything except the one thing she wants to keep hidden: as an undergraduate she was sexually exploited by her professor. The people Del calls “stellars” (another star reference) – the likes of her former “mentor” – are, according to Del, “virtually untouchable unless they did something like rape or kill.” There’s sexual coercion in this novel as well as a murder. Who will be held accountable?

Del’s star-shaped rage felt reminiscent of recent tweets from Emma Healey, Toronto poet and former Globe poetry critic, about why she does not trust Concordia to handle her complaints against a professor. “I cannot think of a single authority figure I met in my time there – even the ones I loved, who mentored me – who wasn’t in some way complicit in actively perpetuating or ignoring this dynamic.”

In different ways, The Red Word and Black Star warn against ignoring the thing that is right in front of you. In both novels, the greatest critique of the university is of the school’s complicity in sexual violence by doing exactly that.

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