July 06, 2011

The Hannibal lectures

By Will Lavender
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“Aren’t all novelists liars?” asks the noted—and notorious—Professor Richard Aldiss during his seminar Unraveling a Literary Mystery. Well, yes. Yes they are. And sometimes the people who study them might be not only liars, but murderers as well. LIT 424, despite its unassuming title, is no ordinary class. Aldiss is conducting it from his jail cell, where he’s serving time for killing two of his former students.

In Dominance, the follow-up to his New York Times bestseller Obedience, author Will Lavender returns to a campus setting for a novel that pulls the reader into a world where words like “text,” “meaning” and “narrative” contort into funhouse-mirror grotesques. And the consequence of misplaced trust, whether in an individual or in one’s own intellect, could be a matter of life and death.

The story, which jumps back and forth between the 1994 class and the present day, attempts to answer the question that was the central "literary mystery" of the seminar: Who is Paul Fallows? The short answer is that he’s a novelist, now deceased, whose aptitude for secrecy and seclusion makes J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon seem positively gregarious by comparison. But the nine students in the class, and most particularly the protagonist, Alexandra “Alex” Shipley, are destined not only to uncover Fallows’ myriad riddles, but to engage in a sort of shadowy lit-crit technique known as the Procedure.

Seventeen years out, the class has seen its number reduced by two; the remaining seven gather, Big Chill-style, at the home of Dean Stanley Fisk prior to the funeral of murdered classmate Daniel Hayden. There’s no Motown soundtrack for this particular movie, though; it’s more like Bernard Herrmann's score for Psycho. Alex, now a professor of literature at Harvard, has been tasked by the police and by her former professor to be their eyes and ears among the assembled mourners, since it’s possible that someone from a long time ago has a grudge to settle.

Lavender is Houdini-level dexterous at the sleight-of-verb necessary to keep the reader guessing, doubting, perplexed and attentive throughout the book. Characters lie, memories lie, senses lie, and underpinning it all is the game-that’s-not-a-game, this enigmatic Procedure, that pulls like an uncontrollable undertow from beyond the grave. Who is Paul Fallows? Maybe the students in Dominance would have been better off never knowing the answer, but Lavender’s readers will be abundantly rewarded.


Thane Tierney is a former employee of the University of California, Irvine, one-time home of literary deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, who would have loved this book.

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By Will Lavender
Simon & Schuster
ISBN 9781451617290

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