Finally! I've finally finished a book that I wanted to read. A book read for pleasure, and it was quite a book. I have no idea how I heard of Francine Prose's Blue Angel. I think it was a short mention in a review I read somewhere, or maybe a quick word in the New York Times. When all was said and done, it was the cover that sealed the deal for me. What a promise of mystery and naughtiness. With a touch of kitsch. Yum!
The novel lived up to the cover's promise. It's about a professor, a writer-in-residence and novelist. With a cushy life teaching one class (with 9 students) and a beautiful wife at home, Ted Swenson seems to have everything going for him, but he suffers from a restlessness and a number of questions clogging up his head. He's all but burned out and given up on writing after his first novel was a respected hit. He's never cheated on his wife in all his years of teaching ripe--if less than talented--young writers. Even while his colleagues basked in their positions of power, Ted has always done the "right thing." Until a very talented--if less than attractive--student comes along. One talented student and his world begins to unwind.
At first I was put off by Prose's style. The whole novel is written in an odd 3rd-person, present tense mess of a style....
Swenson waits for his students to complete their private rituals, adjusting zippers and caps, arranging the pens and notebooks so painstakingly chosen to express their tender young selves, the fidgety ballets that signal their weekly submission and reaffirm the social compact to be stuck in this room for an hour without real food or TV.
However, I'm willing to admit when I'm wrong. By the end of the novel, I can't imagine the book having been written any other way. What this particular perspective does is wrap the reader tightly, and uncomfortably, in Ted's experience and confusion. Should he? Shouldn't he? Did she? Didn't she? The reader feels Ted falling apart.
Prose's novel is a scathing look at academia--the potential pitfalls, snobbery and inane policies--and at times Ted did things that weren't entirely admirable, but that I would bet any academian has wanted to do at one time or another. Ted is the master of screwups, and they're not always so serious. A drunken rant at a dinner party, a cracked tooth in the middle of awkward sex, a completely disfunctional relationship with his editor. There is indeed much humor in the midst of all the mess.
I'm really glad I picked this novel up, and I highly recommend it. It's creepy, funny, snarky and ripe for discussion.