Primordial: An Abstraction
D. Harlan Wilson. Anti-Oedipus Press, $13.95 paperback (167p) ISBN: 978-0-9892391-5-8
Academia's reputation has suffered in the twenty-first century: more competitive, yet less rigorous; fewer faculty positions, yet a more bloated and overpaid administrative class; prestige replaced with politics. D. Harlan Wilson illustrates this de-evolution with a Kafka-esque edge in Primordial: An Abstraction. Eighty-some-odd (and odd) chapters follow the narrator as he, stripped of his doctorate for "practicing a questionable pedagogy" and "writing a toxic strain of theory", is forced to return to university to re-earn his degree. It's the same basic premise of NBC's Community, but this version of a return to college is less sitcom and more a cynical nightmare.
Wilson represents the new academia's hopelessness and profanity in several brief scenes; some literal, such as the epidemic of hardcore pornography shoots occurring throughout campus, and some satirical, like an extended diversion in order to determine, precisely, what is a provost. Anyone familiar with the vestigial titles unique to the university hierarchy will immediately relate to that confusion.
It is that same familiarity with the satire's target that may cause Wilson's (presumably academia-affiliated) readership to find Primordial's barbs a little stale and tired - many of these jokes have been made before, granted, not with Wilson's cuckoo tone and imagery. There is also a whiff of "get off my lawn" in Wilson's observations made through the lens of a middle-class academic's anxiety, like his narrator being constantly confused by the kids' calling one another "shorty", or the awkwardness of student-professor relationships on social media.
Despite that, the narrative moves at a ripping pace, and the reader tracks the narrator and the setting's development (or, rather, de-development) through the chaos. Wilson is at his best when he follows his whimsy and impulse to surprising places. In Primordial, he tacks too closely to sending up the object of so many of a professor's frustrations. The book struggles when it tries to dig beyond the satire, but Wilson undeniably lands many punches along the way. (September 2014)
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Reviewer bio: Tom Taff lives and works in Saint Paul, Minnesota.