When I left my last academic job, a good friend and colleague gave me Ian McGuire’s campus novel Incredible Bodies, in case I would have any regrets. Like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, it’s a satirical novel about academic life and the dysfunctional characters that populate our universities and take themselves way too seriously, while pretending to shift the paradigms of this world with their research.
At the centre of the novel is Morris Gutman, a thirty-something over-worked and underpaid temporary lecturer in the English Lit department at the University of Coketown, who is still learning the ropes of the system while others are embarking on successful careers.
The aptly-named Gutman is a Candide-like character, who naively stumbles through the academic world thinking hard work, original ideas and compliance will eventually land him a permanent academic position. Alas, he soon comes to find out that it’s all about politics and whether or not certain people in power like you.
Only when an unfortunate car accident and a misunderstanding involving a challenging exchange student and a scheming colleague bring him closer to the centres of power, do his fortunes finally begin to change.
Admittedly, the plot is somewhat contrived. But maybe it needs to be so to remind us that McGuire is not actually describing real life – or maybe he is. For the characters are all too recognizable.
There is the bullying HoD and the young, ruthless careerist, who knows how to ingratiate herself with him and get all the grants she wants with departmental backing. Further on the margins, there is the medievalist colleague who resists all change in the increasingly commercialised academic world and is simply left behind, punished with unmanageable teaching and marking loads, while slowly drifting into a life of drink and squalor. And then there’s the principled, old-maid colleague, who eventually leaves the university to pursue religious life, but has the power to deal her department the final blow.
The only vaguely normal people in the book are Morris’s wife and children and, surprisingly, a crazy and provocative artist whose work mirrors that of the academic world in interesting ways without taking itself too seriously.
Everyone who has ever worked in academia and is neither a genius nor extremely well connected has at some point been Morris Gutman or a version of him. So it is a book most academics would relate to at some level, but it’s also a book that anyone thinking of pursuing an academic career should read, so they know what they’re letting themselves in for.