A Review of Blue Angel
Francine Prose's new novel, Blue Angel, is an amiably vicious skewering of the grim reality of teaching undergraduates, circa 1999, and the kind of dangerous place crummy colleges are for anyone who stops to think about anything. Slyly, Prose invites you to believe you already know this story: the "aging professor makes a fool of himself with a brilliant young female student and is ruined while she goes on to triumph" story, a familiarity which the title underscores (referring, as it does, to the von Sternberg movie, which has such a plot). However, Prose infuses the book with the kind of intelligence that makes readers of her incendiary Harper's essays mutter, "I wish I'd said that" over and over. The book makes all kinds of salient, of-the-moment points about publishing (the way a writer is never more sexy and worthy of a bigger advance than when she's never published a book) and gender (women rule academia now, and everyone pretends they don't, which makes them rule it more) and anything else Prose's gaze touches.
Mark Winegardner is a professor in the creative writing program at Florida State University and the author of four books, including the novel The Veracruz Blues.
Read an Excerpt
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. He glances around the seminar table, counts nine; good, everyone's here, then riffles through the manuscript they're scheduled to discuss, pauses, and says, "Is it my imagination, or have we been seeing an awful lot of stories about humans having sex with animals?"
The students stare at him, appalled. He can't believe he said that. His pathetic stab at humor sounded precisely like what it was: a question he'd dreamed up and rehearsed as he walked across North Quad, past the gothic graystone cloisters, the Founders Chapel, the lovely two-hundred-year-old maples just starting to drop the orange leaves that lie so thickly on the cover of the Euston College viewbook. He'd hardly noticed his surroundings, so blindly focused was he on the imminent challenge of leading a class discussion of a student story in which a teenager, drunk and frustrated after a bad date with his girlfriend, rapes an uncooked chicken by the light of the family fridge.
How is Swenson supposed to begin? What he really wants to ask is: Was this story written expressly to torment me? What little sadist thought it would be fun to watch me tackle the technical flaws of a story that spends two pages describing how the boy cracks the chicken's rib cage to better fit the slippery visceral cavity around his throbbing hard-on? But Danny Liebman,whose story it is, isn't out to torture Swenson. He'd just wanted something interesting for his hero to do.
Slouched over, or sliding under, the seminar table, the students gaze at Swenson, their eyes as opaque and lidded as the eyes of the chicken whose plucked head the hero turns to face him during their late-night kitchen romance. But chickens in suburban refrigerators are generally headless. Swenson makes a mental note to mention this detail later.
"I don't get it," says Carlos Ostapcek. "What other stories about animals?" Carlos always starts off. Ex-navy, ex-reform school, he's the alpha male, the only student who's ever been anywhere except inside a classroom. As it happens, he's the only male student, not counting Danny.
What stories is Swenson talking about? He suddenly can't recall. Maybe it was some other year, another class completely. He's been having too many moments like this: a door slams shut behind him and his mind disappears. is this early Alzheimer's? He's only fortyseven. Only forty-seven? What happened in the heartbeat since he was his students' age?
Maybe his problem's the muggy heat, bizarre for late September, El Niño dumping a freak monsoon all over northern Vermont. His classroom-high in the college bell tower-is the hottest spot on campus. And this past summer, workmen painted the windows shut. Swenson has complained to Buildings and Grounds, but they're too busy fixing sidewalk holes that could result in lawsuits.
"Is something wrong, Professor Swenson?" Claris Williams inclines her handsome head, done this week in bright rows of coiled dyed-orange snails. Everyone, including Swenson, is a little in love with, and scared of, Claris, possibly because she combines such intelligent sweetness with the glacial beauty of an African princess turned supermodel.
"Why do you ask?" says Swenson.
"You groaned," Claris says. "Twice."
"Nothing's wrong." Swenson's groaning in front of his class. Doesn't that prove nothing's wrong? "And if you call me Professor again, I'll fail you for the semester."
Claris stiffens. Relax! It's only a joke! Euston students call teachers by their first names, that's what Euston parents pay twenty-eight thousand a year for. But some kids can't make themselves say Ted, the scholarship students like Carlos (who does an end run around it by calling him Coach), the Vermont farm kids like Jonelle, the black students like Claris and Makeesha, the ones least likely to be charmed by his jokey threats. Euston hardly has any students like that, but this fan, for some reason, they're all in Swenson's class.
Last week they discussed Claris's story about a girl who accompanies her mother on a job cleaning a rich woman's house, an eerily convincing piece that moved from hilarity to horror as it chronicled the havoc wreaked by the maid stumbling through the rooms, chugging Thunderbird wine, until the horrified child watches her tumble downstairs.
The students were speechless with embarrassment. They all assumed, as did Swenson, that Claris's story was maybe not literal truth, but painfully close to the facts. At last, Makeesha Davis, the only other black student, said she was sick of stories in which sisters were always messed up on dope or drunk or selling their booty or dead.
Swenson argued for Claris. He'd dragged in Chekhov to tell the class that the writer need not paint a picture of an ideal world, but only describe the actual world, without sermons, without judgment. As if his students give a shit about some dead Russian that Swenson ritually exhumes to support his loser opinions. And yet just mentioning Chekhov made Swenson feel less alone, as if he were being watched over by a saint who wouldn't judge him for the criminal fraud of pretending that these kids could be taught what Swenson's pretending to teach them. Chekhov would see into his heart and know that he sincerely wished he could give his students what they want: talent, fame, money, a job.
After the workshop on her story, Claris stayed to talk. Swenson had groped for some tactful way to tell her that he knew what it... Blue Angel. Copyright © by Francine Prose. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.