A Review of Maureen Medved's Black Star
Review by Steven W. Beattie
In 1998, Maureen Medved published The Tracey Fragments, a brazen, bruising novel that tracked the psychological topography of a teenage runaway. Told (as the title suggests) in a fragmentary, disjointed style by a highly unreliable first-person narrator, the novel served as a poke in the eye to traditional, refined CanLit, offered up a female variation on disaffected urban male literary adolescents such as Holden Caulfield or Pinkie Brown, and announced the arrival of a provocative new literary voice.
Then that voice fell silent for the next two decades.
Medved has not been inactive in all that time: she teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia and has worked as a playwright and essayist. She wrote the screenplay for Bruce McDonald’s 2007 feature film adaptation of The Tracey Fragments, starring Ellen Page in the title role. But readers hoping for a second novel were kept waiting.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the intervening decades find the author focused on a protagonist who is older and more settled than the rambunctious Tracey, though the central figure in Black Star, assistant professor of philosophy Del Hanks, has her own share of psychic baggage to deal with. Now forty, Del (short for “Delorosa” – the chime with the Biblical Via Dolorosa can hardly be accidental) is stalled in her career, struggling to finish her own second book, an epic examination of the conflict between deontological and utilitarian morality called The Catastrophic Decision. She is frustrated at work by the appearance of Helene LeBec, a much younger assistant professor who has just published a bestseller, putting her on the fast track to the tenure position Del feels should rightly be hers.
As a narrator, Del is no more reliable than Tracey in the earlier book, though unlike that novel, Black Star begins traditionally enough, becoming more expressionistic and unconventional as the narrative unfolds. The first half of the book is a fairly straightforward satire on the petty, backstabbing nature of academia: the race for tenure, the interoffice politics around who is and is not invited to a faculty dinner, the hell of meetings to discuss issues of pedagogy or sensitivity training (“According to LEAP, one must expect to deal with the difficult faculty or student. Do not give false hope. Navigate passion. Maintain a rictus grin of equanimity”).
Much of this is very funny and undeniably cringe inducing. There is not a long tradition of campus fiction in Canada – probably the most famous example is Robertson Davies’s 1981 novel The Rebel Angels, a thinly veiled attack on the pretentions swirling at Toronto’s Massey College. Stylistically, Medved’s own campus satire cleaves more closely to recent work such as Suzette Mayr’s Dr. Edith Vane and the Hounds of Crawley Hall, though Medved replaces the gothic elements from Mayr’s novel with postmodern psychic disjunction and a deep dive into the realm of Kantian metaphysics.
As Black Star moves into its second half, the bare bones of the campus novel give way to an increasingly disjointed internal monologue as Del’s tenuous grip on mental stability begins to slide. The novel becomes a kind of psychosexual reckoning arising out of two signal moments in Del’s life. The first is an encounter she has with Cody, an apparently homeless 17-year-old who skulks around a shadowy stairwell in the tunnel leading to the assistant professor’s basement philosophy classroom (the symbolism here is not precisely subtle). The second is an affair Del entered into with her academic mentor when she was still in her twenties. That relationship resulted in a pregnancy that accounts for much of the psychic trauma the older Del experiences, though she has managed somewhat ineffectively to compartmentalize this until her liaison with Cody causes all her suppressed memories to come flooding back.
The interrogation of sexual power dynamics in the realm of academia could not be more relevant to the current cultural moment and Medved is merciless in dissecting the extent to which past wounds redound on Del in the present. The narrative shift from something resembling naturalism to a more stream-of-consciousness driven expressionism provides for a reading experience that is jarring and uncomfortable, though that is surely part of the novel’s design. Where The Tracey Fragments reveled in its energetic abandon, Black Star evinces a greater degree of authorial control, which results in a more sophisticated structure but also a narrative that is paradoxically less propulsive and more self-consciously cerebral.
None of which should suggest that Black Star is without significant interest as a work of fiction. Medved has proved once again that she is one of the most iconoclastic writers currently toiling in the trenches of CanLit. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another 20 years for her next novel.
Steven W. Beattie is the review editor at Quill & Quire magazine. He lives in Toronto.