The Apocalyptic New Campus Novel

Charlie Tyson reviews Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Early in graduate school, I had a curious dream. I had finished my dissertation, but no job was forthcoming. Taking pity on me, my department hired me to perform the functions of a janitor-cum-chambermaid. A pathetic scene followed. I found myself down on my hands and knees, scrubbing the floor tiles of the humanities building, choking on the fumes of cleaning fluid, squeezing my rag into a bucket of dirty suds. Students teemed past holding lattes. My former professors averted their eyes. “At least I can tell people I work at Harvard,” I thought madly, as hot tears spilled down and mingled with the lemon disinfectant.

I recalled this nightmare of bourgeois indignity while reading Christine Smallwood’s debut novel of academic precarity, The Life of the Mind (2021) — the book’s key theme is the production of waste, and the task of cleaning up afterward. Smallwood’s sendup of contemporary academic life follows Dorothy, an adjunct instructor in the English department of a private university in New York City. The novel opens with Dorothy on the toilet in the middle of a bowel movement. It ends with her dumping a sheaf of student essays, each marked with a desultory A-minus, one by one into the trash.

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