Death Comes for the Deconstructionist
180 pp., $22.00
David Lyle Jeffrey
Murder at the MLA
The plot of Death Comes for the Deconstructionist centers on the alleged murder of a prominent academic, just after he has given an award acceptance speech at a meeting of the Modern Language Association. Coincidentally, I have finished reading Daniel Taylor's splendidly crafted novel for the second time just as the MLA is having its annual meeting a few miles away in Austin. I am happy to report that the novel is not only more interesting than almost anything likely to transpire at that distinguished gathering but mercifully more accessible than its title and setting might suggest. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should confess to being a member of the literary tribe by training; I have given just such academic speeches, happily without being murdered for it. But I am glad for many less dramatic reasons to have been home today in my armchair, away from the jostle of politics and posturing proceeding apace just over an hour's drive away. (Cum grano salum, I think re-reading a good novel is almost always a better investment of time than listening to a few more academic papers and speeches.) Yet for me the worst part of the MLA isn't the tendentiously titled papers, mind-numbing as they may be. It comes in between the sessions, seeing the faces of hundreds of anxious graduate students there for job interviews—jockeying for attention, yet with confusion and disillusionment all too visible in their eyes—and realizing that you can't help. Worse still, these harried souls are only a fraction of those who came to graduate schools to pursue their love of literature, "burning with bright hope," in Byron's phrase. Many of their peers have already dropped out, before or during the dissertation, depressed.
In Death Comes for the Deconstructionist, we meet just such a former graduate student, Taylor's protagonist Jon Mote. His dissertation chapters having been repeatedly rejected by his supervisor for being too old-fashioned (i.e., for referring to literary texts more than theorists), he eventually stopped trying. A decade or so later finds him pretty much aimless, trying to make ends meet by doing freelance commissioned research work for lawyers, when suddenly he is asked by the widow of his murdered former professor to be her amateur private investigator into a crime on which the police have made little progress. Haunted by his failures, beset by reflexive incompetence and diminishing psychological stability, but also needing the money, Mote reluctantly agrees. He tries his best to act the part so he can collect the money, but early on is stumped. At an impasse in his search for the murderer—or even a plausible motive—he retreats to the university library:
And so I do what I often do in this situation. I decide to read. Books were an early lifeline, and I turn to them regularly with a certain desperate hopefulness. People talk about reading as an escape from reality—I tend to think about it as an escape into reality. Books aren't an escape from trouble. There's more trouble in novels—and most other books—than anywhere else. Books aren't even an escape from your own particular troubles, because a good book always makes you think about your own life while it pretends to distract you from it.
Here Mote the failed English major pauses to gather his breath and residual sanity for a minute, then adds:
It's just that books suggest the possibility that trouble can be survived, if you know what I mean. Or at least named. Books are more real for me than the rest of my life because they light up more parts of me than the rest of my life ever has. I mean, you can be little more than a damned cartoon figure and get along quite nicely in life—maybe even become president.
As we learn, the primary agent in Mote's being driven away from his early passion for literature is the very professor whose murder he is now trying to solve, Professor Pratt the deconstructionist. It isn't that Pratt had no affection for literature, but rather that he used it primarily for self-gratification, as a means to power. In Mote's description, his old professor loved literature "more like a mistress than a wife." As one might expect, Pratt has had a parade of graduate student mistresses, including one who became his second wife; she tolerated his subsequent serial affairs and now seems genuinely to grieve the death of her husband. That doesn't prevent her from being herself a suspect, along with two department colleagues, and two former graduate students, one of the latter his current mistress, among others. There are complexities to the case that would challenge Chesterton's Father Brown.