Reviews | Short Takes
- The Catastrophist, by Lawrence Douglas
- Louis Johnson and the Arming of America: The Roosevelt and Truman Years, by Keith D. McFarland and David L. Roll ’62
- American Writers at Home, by J.D. McClatchy
The Catastrophist. By Lawrence Douglas, professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought. New York: Other Press, 2006. 276 pp. $24.95 hardcover.
The opening pages of The Catastrophist, Lawrence Douglas’s propulsive first novel, find the protagonist, Professor Daniel Ben Wellington, fallen into some obscure disgrace. Booted from the sprawling, 200-year-old farmhouse he shared with his wife, he is forced to shack up in squalid, “barracks-like” campus housing, where he passes his days in his underwear, binging on syndicated television and awaiting the judgment of his employers. Like any responsible academic, he even keeps a file chronicling his collapse, in “a folder neatly marked, Me: Decline and Fall of.”
It wasn’t always so. Just two years earlier, Wellington was the rising star of Franklin College’s art history department, “on the fast track to academic celebrity,” such as it is. He has been approved for tenure. His first book, Art and Atrocity, a study of monuments to mass slaughter throughout history, has received favorable notices in important publications. He has been invited to join an elite international commission charged with designing a vast Holocaust memorial in central Berlin, and later to act as a consultant to the Imperial War Museum in London. He is, in short, the envy of all his colleagues—and also, perhaps, of his wife (who, in a nod to the 18th-century European novel, Douglas refers to simply, tantalizingly, as “R.”).
For several years now, Wellington’s relationship with R. has been a bit too tame for his tastes, sexually routine and undemonstrative. R.—a stolid, none-too-introspective, and “uncommonly attractive” woman fond of the outdoors—was an adventurous lover before marriage. Soon enough, though, she discovers a more compelling passion: motherhood. After some trial runs with dead porcupines, frozen foxes and “three hideous chickens,” she declares herself ready for the real thing, a human being.
While surprised by his wife’s resolve, Wellington cannot anticipate his horror when, after a year of frustrated efforts, R. finally succeeds in becoming pregnant. Indeed, it is the news of this pregnancy that, over time, will bring about Professor Wellington’s unhinging—the ruinous mid-life crisis that strikes a few years ahead of schedule.“‘I guess I’m just overwhelmed,’” he blunders at their anniversary dinner, when R. makes the announcement. “‘Wow. This is great, absolutely unbelievable.’” The exchange that follows perfectly captures the “catastrophism” of Wellington’s character, which Douglas unfailingly renders with hilarious understatement:
“You’re sweating,” [R.] observed. “A lot.”
“I know. I can’t help it. It’s very strange. But I’m feeling much better, really. Jesus, this is great. Do we know the due date?”
“I haven’t been to the doctor yet, but it should be around April fifteenth.”
“The Titanic,” I said.
“I mean, when did you find out? How?”
“What about the Titanic?”
“Nothing. That’s when it went down, April fifteenth. It just flashed through my head, I’m sorry. So how long have you known?”
What begins as an isolated anxiety attack soon mutates into all-consuming paralysis: Instead of working on his book, the esteemed professor locks himself in his office and cruises Internet porn sites. Acknowledging his off-scale neuroses does nothing to lessen them: “Of course,” Wellington admits, “the baby wasn’t disrupting anything, except R.’s sleep and digestion. But the fear that it would ruinously disrupt my work was ruinously disrupting my work.” For a time, Wellington’s dread is such that he actually considers leaving his wife. When, after months of this behavior, R.’s first pregnancy ends in tragedy, Wellington is stunned, overcome by guilt: “It was as if,” he reflects, “my private pathology had scripted the whole episode.”
After the miscarriage, his work returns to normal—but not, alas, his relationship with R. Once convinced of his eternal fidelity, Wellington responds to the flirtatious advances of an oddball assistant professor in the English department. He thinks unwholesome thoughts about an aspiring actress in his senior seminar, and at the same time grows irrationally jealous of R.’s friendship with an androgynous graduate student. He begins to lie, too, little self-protective falsehoods at first, which later morph into gratuitous public embellishments of his personal history. And, most disastrous of all, on an official trip to Berlin, Wellington falls in love . . . . But is this, too, merely the product of the catastrophist’s deluded mind?
Douglas’s novel is a wonderfully entertaining exploration of this issue, of catastrophism and its perils. In the beginning, Wellington’s neuroses are without much solid basis, as he himself energetically laments: “At times I longed for a distant catastrophe to blame for my present struggles, some un-mastered ur-trauma, which now had resurfaced to make life untenable—the loss, say, of a sibling when I was a little boy.” But as his downfall vividly illustrates, even those fears that originate wholly in the mind, that seem completely divorced from external realities, can have all-too-concrete consequences.
In its essentials, The Catastrophist makes no dramatic departures from the standard academic send-up novel, as defined in this century by Kingsley Amis, David Lodge, Vladimir Nabokov and Philip Roth, among others; Douglas’s hero, or anti-hero, fits the old stereotype of the self-incinerating professor who is intelligent in everything but life. But however familiar the architecture, the writing in this novel—by turns wrenching and comic, mordant and restrained—is entirely Douglas’s own. Don’t just read The Catastrophist for the guilty pleasure of uncovering certain ill-disguised jabs at the Pioneer Valley pastoral. Read it to be riveted, and jolted, and frequently delighted.
—Laura Moser ’99
The reviewer is the author of a Bette Davis biography, and the co-author of two young-adult
novels, The Rise and Fall of a Tenth-Grade Social Climber and All Q, No A.