New Novel About Life of Junior Academics

9 07 2011

From Marginal Revolution, I heard of a new novel about the struggle of a young academic. Something For Nothing is by Michael W. Klein, who  is the William L. Clayton Professor of International Economic Affairs at the Fletcher School, Tufts University. Here is the plot summary.

David Fox (Ph.D. Economics, Columbia, Visiting Assistant Professor at Kester College, Knittersville, New York) is having a stressful year. He has a temporary position at a small college in a small town miles from everything except Albany. His students have never read Freakonomics. He thinks he is getting the hang of teaching, but a smart and beautiful young woman in his Economics of Social Issues class is distractingly flirtatious. His research is stagnant, to put it kindly. His search for a tenure-track job looms dauntingly. (The previous visiting assistant professor of economics is now working in a bookstore.) So when a right-wing think tank called the Center to Research Opportunities for a Spiritual Society (CROSS)–affiliated with the Salvation Academy for Value Economics (SAVE)–wants to publish (and publicize) a paper he wrote as a graduate student showing the benefits of high school abstinence programs, fetchingly retitled “Something for Nothing,” he ignores his misgivings and accepts happily.  After all, publication is “the coin of the realm,” as a senior colleague puts it.

But David faces a personal dilemma when his prized results are cast into doubt. The school year is filled with other challenges as well, including faculty politics, a romance with a Knittersville native, running the annual interview gauntlet, and delivering the culminating “job talk” lecture under trying circumstances. David’s adventures offer an instructive fictional guide for the young economist and an entertaining and comic tale for everyone interested in questions of balancing career and life, success and integrity, and loyalty and desire.

I’m looking forward to reading Klein’s novel, which seems like an updated and Americanised version of Lucky Jim by Kinglsey Amis. Lucky Jim, which was published in the early 1950s, is about the exploits of a very junior lecturer at a small English university. The culmination of the novel is when the main character gives a public lecture that is attended by all of the town’s dignitaries. He has been told that the renewal of his contract hinges of his performance in the lecture. He has also been instructed by his superiors to argue that life in England before the Industrial Revolution was wonderful. The protagonist gets drunk and delivers a rambling lecture that argues the exact opposite, declaring that life before industrialization was “bloody awful”, despite what “the home-made pottery crowd, the organic husbandry crowd, the recorder-playing crowd, the Esperanto crowd” think. After this lecture, Jim is promptly fired. He moves to London to get a job in advertising and live with his new girlfriend.

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