Unbecoming, Lesley Wheeler (Aqueduct 978-1-61976-167-4, $18.00, 236pp, tp) May 2020.
Lesley Wheeler is an accomplished poet and a named professor at Washington and Lee, so it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that her first novel is peppered with striking language (“She was already a ghost of linen and warm air”; kids “flock and wheel”) and shrewd portraits of some familiar denizens of academia. Wheeler’s major previous venture into fantasy, the narrative poem “The Receptionist” (in The Receptionist and Other Tales, also from Aqueduct Press) cleverly and at times hilariously borrowed the language of high fantasy to describe academic politics and misbehavior, and it not only ended up on the Tiptree honor list, but drew praise from the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin and Gwyneth Jones. Her first novel, Unbecoming, is also framed largely as a satirical academic tale, but one leavened with more than a bit of witchery and magic, principally the notion, which begins to haunt the narrator, that certain women entering middle age somehow develop magical powers. We’re told early on that Cynthia (or Cyn) Rennard, the chair of English at a respected Virginia university, is perimenopausal (a condition which she describes as “more taboo than serial killings, less plausible than vampire tales”), and not long afterward she seems to psychokinetically prevent a car from striking her teenage son. Of course, she begins to wonder if there might be a connection.
But there are broader hints of mythical powers afoot. Cyn’s closest friend Alisa is off to Wales on an exchange professorship, and the Welsh professor who arrives in her place is a rather mysterious and glamorous figure named Sophia Ellis, who settles in a bit too quickly and enthralls fellow faculty, to the point where one eventually proposes to her. Not too subtly, she calls herself Fee (and later we’re reminded that Cynthia’s last name, Rennard, also carries some folkloristic weight, underlined when she decides to dress as a fox to attend a costume party being thrown by Fee). Meanwhile, Alisa’s increasingly sparse communications from Wales begin to take on a vaguely ominous tone, while some odd little watercolors in Alisa’s house – now occupied by Fee – seem to assume some magical, portal-like qualities. And Cyn’s own possible “blood magic” (as Fee calls it) apparently begins to have darker results. Is Fee in fact a “changeling professor,” as her local nickname has it? Is Cyn’s blood magic real, along with the hints of shapeshifting and portals to other realms?
Wheeler manages such questions with considerable grace and subtlety, while the major action of the novel revolves around the much more mundane problems of faculty life – trying to shepherd a younger professor through tenure, fending off threatened English budget cuts in favor of more “practical” fields like biology or business, coping with an ambitious faculty member’s proposal to demote literature in favor of “Strategic Communications,” and facing down the “Ice Maiden” dean (deans always seem to get the Voldemort role in academic novels). Meanwhile, Cyn’s psychology professor husband is teaching on a limited contract at a less prestigious state university not quite in commuting distance, and the family faces the possibility of relocating unless a position for him opens up at Cyn’s school. Anyone who has worked in higher education will recognize the authenticity of Wheeler’s acerbic portrait – “the smaller the problem, the more heated the rhetoric,” as she says – and there are occasional hilarious echoes of the sort of gonzo academic satire we used to see in the novels of David Lodge and others. At the same time, given the current realities of higher education for many, there is also a vaguely old-fashioned sense of elite privilege among these characters worrying over tenure-track positions and endowments; no one seems to have to piece together poverty-level incomes from adjunct teaching or worry about massive student debt. It would be great if the blood magic which seems to be infiltrating Cyn’s university could do something about that.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
This review and more like it in the May 2020 issue of Locus.
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