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In Two New Novels, the Trouble Is Academic — and All Too Real

Category: Art & Culture,Books

By Michael Downing

By Johannes Lichtman

Michael Downing’s “Still in Love,” the belated sequel to his 1997 novel “Perfect Agreement,” describes a semester inside the classroom. After 20 years teaching composition at McClintock College, the protagonist, Mark Sternum, has been fired for failing a black single mother and found new work as a creative writing professor at Hellman College. Mark champions limitation as the focus of his class: “to have limits, to need limits, to choose our limits, to be defined by those limits, and to learn to love them.”

But the novel itself seems less in love with its limits than relieved of the obligation to transcend them. A meticulous realism transcribes in numbing detail every syllable of classroom conversation, alongside a great daily fuss about printing and stapling — the literal pushing of papers. Downing’s prose is as clean as you’d expect from a creative writing teacher at Tufts, but it never ventures out of the everyday and into the curious.

The narrative is supplemented by Sternum’s weekly writing assignments and blackboard exercises and Word documents with “track changes” on, presenting itself as more a seminar than a novel. While Mark’s students are required to fulfill intricate plot and form requirements in their stories, the novel’s own concerns are comparatively minor and unstructured: Mark’s tepid relationship with his distant lover, house repairs and the state of the Saab brand today.


Mark’s catalog of his students strains to register their identities beyond mere formality: Rashid, his one Muslim student, is noted each time she raises her hand by the changing color of her head scarf. These descriptions are always hyphenated (“sage-green,” “ice-blue”) in a failed effort to suggest he is seeing her clearly. The word “trans” is spoken, whether by Rashid or another student Mark isn’t sure, and the subject drops. A central drama arrives at its anticlimax when Mark’s sympathy for a cancer-ridden student devolves into banal administrative frustration.

“Still in Love” presents the classroom as a sacred ground — “that fragile home for possibility, that singular space devoted solely to potential” — and admirably outlines the ways in which writing can be improved on a technical level. But the story keeps its reach curbed and its eyes down until it culminates in a tired plot twist that only makes the narrow world of this novel even smaller.

Johannes Lichtman’s debut novel, “Such Good Work,” begins in a similar mode: An anxious male creative writing teacher has trouble navigating the politics and processes of a college campus. Again, oddly, a black single mother is the catalyst for institutional reprimand — although in this case for the protagonist’s failure to be harsh enough with her. Jonas, the teacher, is addicted to opiates as a remedy for social anxiety. Lichtman, a remarkable thinker and social satirist, fills his first 50 pages with a misleadingly pedestrian cycle of basic cowardice, random aggression, flagrant self-congratulation and garden-variety self-loathing, until a Suboxone strip chops up the rhythm of his prose and the book begins in earnest.

Relocating to Lund, Sweden, to get clean, Jonas enrolls in a graduate program and lives in a dorm for exchange students. His Swedish mother has gifted him citizenship and language, but the difference between the mother tongue and his mother’s tongue trips Jonas up on his quest to be chatty, idiomatic and cool. From his perch deep within his own self-consciousness, Jonas witnesses the foreign dynamics around him with astonishing lucidity. He can identify the difference between a would-be Swedish Detroit and a Swedish Oakland. Accounts of nine-party political systems lead him to realize that outside the “either/or-ness of Democrat/Republican,” he can’t articulate his own beliefs. America’s measure of “how well you did what you were doing” is timid compared to Sweden’s “Is what you’re doing worthwhile?”

Jonas finds a companion in his neighbor Anja, one of the more autonomous, intelligent and unpredictable female characters to grace a male novelist’s debut. Lichtman has a terrific ear for the tiny linguistic cues that reveal completely correct English to be nonetheless foreign, and Anja’s dialogue is delivered in sometimes heartbreakingly poignant German-English. When she concludes a pivotal argument with the simple phrase “that’s what we’ll do,” the reader feels the potency of a kind of communication between lovers that is non-national, non-hierarchical and pronounced in peace.

Following that argument, Jonas moves to Malmo, the third-largest city in Sweden and the center of a growing immigration crisis. It’s the spring of 2015, six months before Alan Kurdi’s body washes up on the shore of Turkey. Jonas’s desire to fit in is complicated by the ensuing emergency. His own semi-foreignness looks meager next to the profound alienation of the arriving refugees. Addiction and xenophobia begin to operate as parallel social epidemics, and it’s here that the novel outgrows its own boundaries, becoming stranger and more robust. As Jonas moves away from his lukewarm academic work and toward a volunteer organization teaching Swedish to Afghan unaccompanied minors, he enters a frame of mind in which every instinct is clobbered by an opposing one. Charity becomes danger, connection becomes insult, and aid becomes restriction in a dizzying but sincere engagement with two of our most unsolvable global problems.

“Such Good Work” introduces a writer who is willing to openly contradict himself, to stand corrected, to honor both men and women, to ask sincere questions and let them ring unanswered. His classroom is a more viable sanctuary because the difficult world lights its windows.

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