Smile Politely

A blind date with a local book

In my experience, reading any uncorrected proof sent from an author or publisher is a lot like a blind date set up by a friend. You basically have the packaging, a few endorsements, and a little blurb-y summary, then you’ve committed to spending an evening in its company. You’ll forgive any typos or little missteps because nobody’s really ready to do this, and you’ll either warm up to it or you won’t, but you can still be polite. If it’s not for you, there’s a place on campus that accepts donated ARCs, but if you fall in love, then it can stay on your shelf forever.  

When I say that reading Urbana-dwelling James Tadd Adcox’s novella, Repetition, is like being on a blind date specifically in Urbana, I am mostly referring to the protagonist, but not solely. It took me a couple false-starts and re-tries before I hit the groove and knocked out the 65 page novella in one sitting – call it bad timing. The story started out very awkwardly, started to loosen up but hit a few stumbles, and then told a really oddly-funny story that had me laughing in places but also slightly concerned. Still, it was a well-spoken and quite clever sendup of the world of academics, and it strikes me as a popular type who will have no problem finding its match, especially in this town. 

The publicity blurb name-checks Kierkegaard, a philosopher I know little about. (I blame Monty Python for only giving him the briefest of mentions in any of their sketches, I know far more about the drinkers from the song.) In the spirit of the blind date, I decided to keep myself ignorant before beginning. I wanted to see what I could pick up as I went along, and how this story would appeal to an uninitiated audience. I’m also fairly ignorant of the environment of higher education, so I found it slightly hard to believe that only one book by a philosopher would not only have an academic society, but an international conference. On the other hand, now that I’ve written that, I fully expect to hear someone go on about a similar venture the next time I’m at the Blind Pig.  

It seemed appropriate to the title that I needed to re-start Repetition several times before I got into the right mindset to move on. I’d read the introduction, sigh, put it down, and wait a few days…then repeat. The first three pages are written as an obtuse precis, I assume intentionally, filled with a half-page of footnotes and a hyper-objective glimpse of what’s to come. The choice to use – and overuse – the footnote mechanic in such a short book may have been meant as a visual callback to a scholarly paper.  Unfortunately, my primary association with this trick is with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which is not a favorite, and made it difficult for me to want to move forward.  

Once I got past that, I met an entirely unlikeable middle-aged straight white male protagonist steeped in academia who seemed to resent the presence of other people he voluntarily allowed in his life. Yup, I have totally met that guy around here. This guy was worse than most – which is the point because it’s a satire – but at the outset it’s not clear that the book is poking fun at the traits I hate about him. The crux of the issue is his narcissism, which reduces any other person to basically bulletin boards for him to tack his own ideas onto. That’s the point, and the joke, and while there’s merit to making fun of it, the trend of the “endearingly unpleasant” male protagonist is wearing thin on me: it feels like once-removed indulgence of bad behavior for the sake of humor. More than once. I had to put the book down again and re-start, again, a few days later. I knew at that point that as a female autodidact, I was not this book’s intended audience, but this book is barely a beer long, so I knew I could stick it out. I’m mostly glad I did.

That’s the point in the “date” where the story began to relax and bring on the funny anecdotes: there were some awkward power plays, poor reactions to emotional outbursts, and a thought-experiment love-affair. At several points I asked the book, out loud, just what it thought it was doing, and I did laugh along in many of the right places. I could tell that some of what it was saying was going over my head, and I was pretty okay with that; it made enough sense that I was along for the ride, which got pretty thrilling.  

Regardless, at the end of the night, it was 65 pages of my reading life that brought me some amusement at the expense of the intelligentsia. And to be sure, the narrator did suffer some consequences for his attitudes and actions, so I closed the book with a chortle and a sense of satisfaction. The writing is clear and precise, even during the height of a frenzied scene of absurd actions, which is very difficult to do. I’m sure there are readers who will get all the jokes that I missed, and value this story as the allegorical farce it set out to be. Especially in this college town, Repetition is certain to have a ready-made appreciation society.

Repetition by James Tadd Adcox is available online from Cobalt Press for $10 in paperback or a $4 e-book. It’s from a cool indie press that makes beautiful-looking books, so maybe order a couple-three and have them on hand to pass to those readers you think might get something from it. I’d suggest starting with the fans of Jonathan Franzen or DFW. 

James Tadd Adcox lives in Urbana, works at Purdue, and has written other things, like Does Not Love

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