The Handmaid of Desire

John L'Heureux, Author
John L'Heureux, Author Soho Press $23 (0p) ISBN 978-1-56947-073-2
Reviewed on: 09/02/1996
Release date: 09/01/1996
Paperback - 256 pages - 978-1-56947-123-4
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The absurdities of academe are a springboard for L'Heureux's 15th book, a wacky tale of lust, intellectual pretension, petty jealousy and divine intervention in the English department at a distinguished, but unnamed, Northern California University. When Olga Kominska, an enigmatic visiting professor, arrives to teach a seminar on Foucault and to begin work on her next novel, she encounters a department riven by sexual affairs, frustrated ambitions and bitter rivalries between young theorists and old formalists. Zachary Kurtz, the Machiavellian young Turk who lured Olga to the university, is plotting to overthrow the department of English and erect in its place a department of Theory and Discourse, where all texts will be studied ""with absolute indifference to the author's reputation or the Western canon or the nature of writing itself."" Yet the balance of power he seeks is in jeopardy: the ascendant chairman, Robbie Richter, who is Kurtz's pet, has a nervous breakdown; Tortorisi, a maladroit homunculus whom Kurtz despises, is writing a scathing roman a clef about the department; Peter Peeks, a lithe, vacuous surfer who swears that ""Foucault is a god"" is on the make among the faculty; and virtually every young professor on staff is desperate for a baby. Olga faces such challenges with a novelist's aplomb. Mary Poppins-like, swooping down from on high with a preternatural charm that makes her everyone's confidante, she sets out to answer the prayers of her colleagues; the results, of course, are drolly disastrous. L'Heureux (The Shrine at Altamira), who teaches English at Stanford, offers a witty new spin on Foucault's notion of the death of the author. Yet his tone throughout is one of arch silliness, and his interest in character is coldly satirical, lending this book a smugness that makes it far less engaging than the academic spoofs by David Lodge or Jane Smiley to which it will no doubt be compared. (Sept.)
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