Before he collapses in a drunken swoon, the protagonist of Kingsley Amis’ 1954 classic satire Lucky Jim, delivers a lecture on Merrie England “…with smothered snorts of derision…spitting out the syllables like curses, leaving mispronunciations, omissions, spoonerisms uncorrected, turning over the pages of his script like a score reader following a presto movement, raising his voice higher and higher.”
The lecture-gone-wrong has shown up in campus novels ever since, a nod to Amis and the trope’s satiric gold. So it’s not surprising that Randy Boyagoda resurrects it in his new book, Original Prin. In this comic novel, the first of a planned trilogy, the writer inches his main character, Princely St. John Umbiligoda, a “not very prominent” faculty member of a small Catholic university, ever closer to a distant podium.
Prin won’t own it. But he doesn’t have to because the novel’s first line — “Eight months before he became a suicide bomber, Prin went to the zoo with his family” — promises something more surprising, even original from him.
When we first meet Prin, he’s fresh from prostate cancer treatment and reluctant to return to work. But then finds out his employer, UFU (University of the Family Universal), is teetering on a very modern precipice: it has run out of funding.
A consultant’s already on the payroll. This turns out to be Wende, the girlfriend Prin lost before he met his wife Molly in a church basement. Prin is voluntold to be the faculty representative working with one-too-many-buttons-undone Wende to deliberate on UFU’s best options. There are only two: partnering with a Chinese developer interested in turning UFU’s grounds into an upscale elder-care facility or becoming an on-line satellite campus for Dragomans, a fictitious Middle Eastern nation rebuilding itself after devastating civil war.
When the opportunity to combine both options arises, Wende urges Prin to deliver the first in-person lecture by UFU faculty in Dragomans — accompanied by her. Prin doesn’t need the temptation of Wende to convince him, because God, like a divinely intervening wing man, tells him simply, go!
The comic novel triumphs using “wilful artificiality” according to British author Jonathan Coe. It takes finesse to dance on that razor’s edge of credulity – too much believability can be depressing, too little feels slapstick. On balance, Boyagoda gets it right. His comic set pieces show Prin as hapless and well-meaning. (Okay, a tad earnest too: Prin may be original, but his sin’s in short supply.) When Prin joins his dad Kingsley in a trash-talking pickleball match against two Kiwis on Good Friday, the tournament is more fun, than funny. But here Boyagoda combines the madcap with the tender, momentarily inhabiting Kingsley’s point of view:
“All these years getting from Sri Lanka to Canada, and all the struggle here, up through running the convenience store and losing his marriage and raising a son who wasn’t an actual doctor. And the loneliness. But today he’d defeated white giants. He’d won a pickleball trophy. He had an obedient son, a proud ex-wife and also a Muslim man asking for his advice on convincing the Aga Khan to make pickleball a priority of his faith…This was a damned good Friday.”
Later, Prin finally delivers his lecture: four hours of musing on Martin Buber, Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the penis-as-seahorse imagery in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. (You can practically hear the glee with which Boyagoda, the author of five novels and a real-life prominent faculty member, skewers the beard-scratching bloat of the academe.)
After Prin’s marathon oration, the story veers toward ironic tragedy to make good on its first sentence. It’s as if Boyagoda’s determined to drag the campus novel kicking and screaming from Lucky Jim’s preoccupations with romance and pints to the absurd realities of the present, including the extremities of faith, fundraising and men jogging with serious faces.
Getting ready to leave Dragomans, a disillusioned Prin finds himself in a small church wanting to be “…shattered, warmed, found, kept, filled, spared caught and released, explicated, expiated, saved and sent home.” The reader suspects he might get every bit of it, and then some.