Pictures from an Institution, Randall Jarrell

80989I wish he’d written more than one novel. Jarrall is of course most famous for ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,’ which was, along with ‘The Hollow Men,’ one of the poems responsible for getting me into literature 25 years ago, when I was 12 or 13.

Too busy to say much right now: this is a superior, perhaps one of the best, of the academic fiction I’ve read, although I have to admit that I don’t read much of it: too self-indulgent. It’s as good as Pnin, better in many ways than Possession, and leaves crap like David Lodge or Francine Prose in the crapdust. And, unlike Amis’s Lucky Jim, Jarrall’s satire often discovers things to like in academia. With that in mind, this excerpt from the summary is pretty hamfisted: “Pictures from an Institution is a superb series of poisonous portraits, set pieces, and endlessly quotable put-downs. One reads it less for plot than sharp satire, of which Jarrell is the master.” No, actually, it’s a lot more than that, and that’s obvious, again, if you compare it to Lucky Jim: but that would require, oh, knowing anything about the genre before writing the blurb. Now, as for the purportedly savage caricature of Mary McCarthy: sort of. But one has to observe just how brilliant the Gertrude character is: she’s mean, but there’s no character more witty or feared in the novel, and it’s never said that Gertrude’s a bad writer. If someone savagely portrayed me this way, I’d have his babies.

So, if you don’t like an academic novel that’s light on plot, one whose prose is a set of poetic maxims strung together, then read Jane Smiley’s Moo. Otherwise, read this.

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