The plot goes something like this: Professor flounders in his own career and has midlife crisis. Professor yearns for a student or students. Hell breaks loose. Lessons are learned.
Those who can, do.
Those who can't, teach.
Those who can't do whom they teach, write about it. Or so it would seem from a handful of recent novels by some of the country's finest middle-aged professors, who have all focused on middle-aged professors having affairs with their students.
Michael Chabon did it in Wonder Boys (Picador, 368 pages, $14), Jonathan Franzen did it in The Corrections, (Picador, 592 pages, $15), and Joyce Carol Oates had her student do it with a professor couple in Beasts (Carroll & Graf, 138 pages, $15.95). Disgraceful, you say. Disgusting, you murmur. Disreputable, you add.
And often disastrous. With few exceptions, the novels aren't very good. Here's why: Ever since colleges started drafting formal policies against teachers taking up with their students, the un-PC plot line has become a cliche. Professors risk losing their jobs if they take up with their students, so they write about it instead. The student-teacher affair has become shorthand for a life in turmoil, not to mention a stalled academic career. And the result is about as fresh as an undergraduate's memoir about his or her sexual awakening. Yawn.
Teacher-student affairs are nothing new. Back in the 12th century, Abelard was a French philosopher who took up with his student Heloise. When word about their secret marriage got out, Heloise went off to a nunnery, and Abelard was attacked and castrated.
Fast-forward eight or nine centuries and you'll find Philip Roth making the most of the professor-student relationship in his trilogy of novels featuring David Kepesh, the Lothario professor who yearns to "parent" his female students by luring them into bed. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning author's books The Professor of Desire, The Breast and The Dying Animal, Kepesh weds women and beds students, but he's always searching for someone new to satisfy him.
"Now I'm vulnerable to female beauty, as you know," Kepesh confesses to the reader in The Dying Animal. "I see it and it blinds me to everything else. They come to my first class and I know almost immediately which is the girl for me. There is a Mark Twain story in which he runs from a bull, and the bull looks up to him when he's hiding in a tree, and the bull thinks, 'You are my meat, sir.' Well, that 'sir' is transformed into 'young lady' when I see them in class."
Making the protagonist into an egotistical lech is an effective way to get the reader to hate him, a hate that quickly turns to revulsion followed by pity. And in Kepesh's case, romancing his students doesn't ever seem to bring him down. In other books dealing with the matter, however, the professor loses all.
Take Chip Lambert in the dysfunctional family novel The Corrections. Chip is an affable assistant professor in textual artifacts at a Connecticut college who is romanced by a seductive undergraduate named Melissa. He tries to resist. When Melissa makes her big move, Chip tries to fight it, but fails. " 'Code,' he said, pulling free. 'There's a code.' Melissa rolled off the sofa, stood up, and came closer. 'It's a stupid code,' she said. 'If you care about somebody.' ... She kissed him on the cheek, near his ear. 'So there.' "
After Chip and Melissa consummate their relationship, she turns Chip in to the college administration and he loses his job. The next thing the reader knows, Chip has moved to New York City, gotten pierced, bought some leather clothes and has started to work writing a really bad screenplay. Talk about falling hard.
Another not-so-loveable loser can be found in Tim O'Brien's farce Tomcat in Love (Broadway Books, 347 pages, $26). Thomas H. Chippering is a loquacious linguistics professor who has been dumped by his one true love, his wife, Lorna Sue. Although Chippering schemes to get her back, he also can't get over how much every woman he meets wants to sleep with him. Or so he thinks.
When Chippering makes a pass at a female student, she retaliates by blackmailing him into writing her thesis. To add insult to injury, he's also spanked in front of his class by his ex-wife's brother and her new husband. This guy is such a loser that despite his constant efforts, he can't even bed a student.
OK, Tim, we get the point. A man who makes passes at students is a big zero. Alas, a reader expects something a tad more artful from a National Book Award-winning author whose work is usually perfectly haunting and understated.
However, the professor-student love thing can work when it's treated right. In Chabon's Wonder Boys, protagonist Grady Tripp is a dope-smoking one-hit wonder of a writing professor with an estranged wife, a pregnant mistress and a couple of dead animals in the trunk of his car. He's also got a gazillion-page novel in progress that stinks and a fetching undergraduate in cracked red cowboy boots who has the hots for him. It's a heavy load for one man to bear, and Tripp eventually falters under the weight of it all.
In this case, Chabon makes the professor-student thing work. The girl, Hannah Green, initially likes Tripp because she loved his first book. Although he's tempted, they don't get together. Once she reads his novel-in-progress and discovers what a mess it and he both are, her ardor cools. With sensitivity and skill, Chabon describes in a few deft lines how a naive girl falls out of love with a broken-down man.
" 'Wait till you finish it,' I said, 'You'll see.' Again, she didn't reply, but now she managed to bring herself to look at me, and her face was the face of a woman who, having at the last moment discovered that all of her fiance's claims and bona fides were false, all of his credentials forged, has unpacked her trunks and cashed in her ticket and now must tell him quickly that she will not sail away. There was pity there, and resentment, and a Daughter-of-Utah hardness that said, Enough's enough."
The girl doesn't have to spurn the professor in order for the plot to be successful. In fact, in Blue Angel by Francine Prose (Perennial, 336 pages, $14), when a student lures her writing professor into a sexual relationship in order to get him to plug her novel, the end result is a cutting sendup of teacher-student relationships and of political correctness in academia.
Ted Swenson is a writer-in-residence at Euston College, a small Vermont liberal arts institution, who starts reading a student's novel about a student who has an affair with her teacher and becomes enmeshed in a similar relationship himself. The student, Angela Argo, is a pornographic poetry writer and liar who flatters him and makes him forget his age. He falls for her talent and her youth. When Angela rats on Swenson because he refuses to flak her novel to his editor, everything from his overdue library books to his irregular office hours gets dragged into the college's case against him.
Everyone believes the girl. Swenson can't win. Eventually he realizes he doesn't want to anyway. "What a favor they're all doing him, showing him their true selves. ... He should be thanking Angela! Had this not happened, he'd have stayed at Euston, secure, pre-embalmed -- till he grew old and died and never noticed that he was in hell. He's not being fired, he's being promoted from the inferno to purgatory."
Alas, Prose's book is a true original. Most of the others that deal with the topic of sexual relationships between teachers and students are about as original and exciting as parents weekend. Writers who use the plot should be reaching for some other way to explore youth vs. middle age. Buy a sporty convertible. Get a hair transplant. Just don't drag the reader into it.
Maria Blackburn is a former reporter and former assistant to The Sun's book editor who now works as a senior writer for the Johns Hopkins Alumni Magazine. An English literature and writing major at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., she says she never pined for any of her middle-aged writing professors during her student writer days. Really.