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If Francine Prose’s latest novel, Blue Angel, were written by a man, its author would surely be called a sexist. Like David Mamet’s Oleanna—another acid-tongued, anti-politically-correct allegory about the perils of regulating student-teacher sex—its emotional center belongs to a male professor whose "only human" attraction/sympathy for a female disciple (herself a manipulative slut and feminist moralizer rolled into one) leads him straight into act three of The Crucible. In Prose’s case, however, the professor in question is a hapless 47-year-old novelist named Swenson, while his student paramour is a pouty, punk-rock aspiring writer named Angela. The attraction is obvious, not because Angela makes such an attractive conquest—far from it—but because Prose lays the seeds of Swenson’s lust-tinged discontent on the first page. There is also the small matter of the book’s title, which has been lifted holus bolus from the classic Marlene Dietrich movie of the same name, in which a repressed professor is destroyed by his obsession with the nightclub diva Lola—Dietrich in top hat and stockings, singing "Falling in Love Again."
Though happily married with a steady job and at least one well-received novel to his credit, Swenson finds his identity as a "dangerous outsider" increasingly under attack. A creative writing instructor at a tiny, second-tier college in Northern Vermont, he feels perforce "left out of the loop." He has a bad case of writer’s block. He is haunted by the spectacular suicide of his activist father. His college-age daughter, Ruby, is barely speaking to him. He is no longer able to muster up much enthusiasm for the day-at-the-health-clinic stories relayed to him by his nurse wife, Sherrie, herself the only sympathetic female character in the entire book. His eyes begin to wander…. If it all sounds a little too familiar—mid-life crisis anyone?—Prose’s tart writing rescues it from utter cliché. She writes, "Even after Ruby was born, he and Sherrie clung to that sense of being rebels, partners in crime passing for respectable citizens at nursery-school Halloween parties and parent-teacher conferences. But lately there’s been some … slippage." Enter Angela, the angry young thing acting out with Daddy’s money. That Prose gives her bad girl multiple piercings and tattoos is overkill. But no matter: we get the idea. She is trouble, and Swenson is vulnerable to it.
A flirtation ensues against the backdrop of Angela’s own novel-in-progress, a promising student work about—you guessed it—a chick with a crush on her teacher. Again, the symbolism is heavy-handed, especially because the reader is well aware of Angela’s active interest in bedding Swenson without being made to reflect on her life-as-art musings. (Swenson’s discovery of a stash of Angela’s pornographic poetry on such topics as incest and phone sex seems similarly gratuitous.) No sooner has she gotten him in bed than the trouble begins. After breaking a tooth, he leaves the scene of the crime with nothing to show for it but a bad conscience. There is his marriage to worry about. There is also the fact that his college has instituted a Draconian new policy prohibiting student-teacher relations. The rest of the novel, like a slowly ripping Band-Aid, chronicles the incrementally torturous demise of an essentially good man’s life. The chick turns on him, his wife leaves, he takes to the bottle and loses his job, the chick gets a book deal, his editor tells him to give up fiction and write a memoir about substance abuse.
One problem with message-driven theater or literature—presumably, Prose’s message is that legislating matters of the heart sets a dangerous precedent in terms of privacy and freedom—is that it quickly dates itself. Indeed, much of the material Prose covers is reminiscent of an earlier moment in the culture, circa 1994, when a new crop of pro-pleasure feminists such as Katie Roiphe (author of The Morning After) decried the moralizing forces at work on the nation’s college campuses. Reading Blue Angel, you would think we were living in a puritanical world, as opposed to one with a seemingly limitless appetite for new forms of titillation. Another problem is that the reader can spot the unhappy ending coming from a mile away. (After all, what’s a warning tale without a martyr?)
To Prose’s credit, the specifics of Angela’s betrayal come as something of a surprise: it is suggested that her pursuit of Swenson is a purely Machiavellian attempt to win access to Swenson’s book editor in New York. But does real life really work this way? Nineteen-year-olds don’t need to be in love in order to make love any more than adults do, but it’s still hard to imagine a college coed calculating enough to stage an entire romance with the single goal of seeing her work published.
Indeed, like many of the characters in Blue Angel—from the humorless women’s studies professor, Lauren, to the Dimmsdale-like college dean, Bentham—Angela seems more representative than she does realistic. On the other hand, allegories have never pretended to peddle in subtlety. It is rather in the cool irony of their story lines (think Animal Farm) that success is measured. And in this, Prose proves herself an able practitioner.
That said, Prose is at her best not when she’s twisting the plot into clever shapes but reflecting on the poetry of everyday existence. There is an especially felicitous passage about the pleasure of sitting down to a hot meal with a loved one—here experienced by Swenson. "He sits in the kitchen, admiring the easy competence with which Sherrie flips the cutlets, checks the potato casserole bubbling in the oven…. A flush of intense well-being makes him think that all history and civilization has been preparation for this blessed moment of sitting across from his wife, inhaling the perfumes of wine, chicken, lemon, and melted cheese, while a gentle steam rises from his plate." How could such a seasoned partnership come crashing down at the hands of a whiny tramp? One only wishes Prose had spent more time dissecting Swenson’s competing desires for home and hussy and less time taking pot shots at women’s studies professors and rape crisis center counselors (his daughter, Ruby, later becomes one—in case there weren’t enough humorless feminists to go around). As it is, his succumbing to a student of no particular charm or beauty—especially after twenty years of rebuffing similar advances—feels untenable.
Then again, real life—especially real matters of the heart—tends to elude logical explanation. Which is precisely why reigning in sex, both on campus and off, is as futile a project as it is fatuous. Just ask Francine Prose, who has built a biting novel built on this very premise.
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