by randy boyagoda
biblioasis, 224 pages, $14.95
Pity the satirist: He labors under a double burden. There is, first and foremost, the need to be funny. Whatever kind of laughter the satirist conjures—whether it be queasy or full-out—the jokes have to land. Comedians have no safety net, and the ground is hard-packed. Then there is the conviction, now commonplace, that our world has passed some sort of absurdity threshold where reality is so bizarre that it leaves no room for the satirist’s use of caricature and exaggeration. With a sitting president of the United States rage-tweeting incoherently into the wee hours of the night, the satirist might justifiably feel like setting down his pen once and for all.
So you have to admire the chutzpah of Randy Boyagoda, whose latest novel, Original Prin, leaps into the satirical fray with both feet. “Eight months before he became a suicide bomber,” the first sentence begins, “Prin went to the zoo with his family.” Above the zoo there is a billboard showing “two furry gifts from China snuggled in the smiling Prime Minister’s lap, chewing bamboo shoots that pointed in perilous directions.” Seeing this, Prin winces with “a sympathetic twinge in his own groin,” but you can be sure that Boyagoda-the-satirist is aiming some of those shoots directly at his readers’ tender parts.
In this opening it’s hard not to hear an echo of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, the first words of which are: “Was anyone hurt?” Indeed, Waugh is the modern master in whose steps Boyagoda follows. In the typical Waugh satire, you have a passive protagonist—more acted upon than acting—combined with a detached narrative voice that delivers its zingers in absolute deadpan. A classic example would be the passage from Waugh’s Decline and Falldescribing a university club: “There is tradition behind the Bollinger; it numbers reigning kings among its past members. At the last dinner, three years ago, a fox had been brought in in a cage and stoned to death with champagne bottles. What an evening that had been!”
Original Prin owes more than a stylistic debt to Waugh, since Boyagoda shares his mentor’s Catholic faith and mordant attitude toward contemporary political cant and moral disarray. It’s also a welcome reminder that discussions of literature by Catholic writers over the past century have tended to focus more on the tragic dimension (Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, Georges Bernanos’s The Diary of a Country Priest, Shūsaku Endō’s Silence) and less on comedy and satire. After all, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, for all their involvement with violence and existentialism, were fundamentally comic writers. And in Britain, Waugh’s distinguished successors include Muriel Spark and the criminally underappreciated Alice Thomas Ellis, both of whom were practitioners of comic irony so dry you could towel off with it.
Boyagoda seems bent on adapting and renewing this tradition. The author of several novels and a biography of Richard John Neuhaus, he is a professor of English at the University of Toronto, where he is also principal of St. Michael’s College, a Catholic college within the University of Toronto founded by Basilian priests.
Boyagoda’s alter ego in the novel is Prin (short for Princely, son of Kingsley), a forty-year-old college professor, the child of Sri Lankan immigrants to Canada. He is happily married to Molly, has four daughters, and struggles to live out the Catholic faith he has inherited from his pious mother. His academic specialty is “marine life in the Canadian literary landscape.” Prin has yet to publish much, but he has given a series of conference presentations on “the penis shaped like a sleeping seahorse that figures prominently in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.” His academic institution, founded by Irish priests as Holy Family College, has now morphed into the more inclusive University of the Family Universal, or UFU for short.
At the outset of the novel, Prin is confronted by two challenges: early-onset prostate cancer, which has required surgery (successful but for one devastating side-effect), and a financial crisis at UFU, which has forced the school into contemplating extreme measures to ensure its survival.
As it happens, UFU has hired Prin’s ex-girlfriend Wende as a consultant to help avert disaster. She presents two possible solutions: combining the university’s teaching with an eldercare facility (“The original building, in this future rendering, had been hollowed out and turned into a massive atrium lined with Apple computers and defibrillator boxes”) or farming its professors out to a small, Middle Eastern nation called Dragomans to teach Christian orphans.
Up to this point in the narrative, the reader might be forgiven for imagining that Original Prin is at heart a satire of academia. There’s plenty of that, but Boyagoda’s ambition extends beyond a takedown of the ideological inanities and moral ambiguities plaguing twenty-first century academe. The stripping of UFU’s Catholic identity is really a gateway to a larger issue regarding the nature of authentic religious faith.
In short, Original Prin is concerned with the phenomenon raised by a line from G. K. Chesterton, often misquoted as follows: “When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.” What Chesterton actually wrote is even more provocative. In one of the Father Brown stories, the priest-sleuth notes that one dire result of unbelief is not the rise of reason but the proliferation of superstition: “It’s drowning all your old rationalism and scepticism, it’s coming in like a sea; and the name of it is superstition. . . . It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense and can’t see things as they are.”
Boyagoda’s novel, the first in a trilogy, veers in its second half away from mere satire and toward an exploration of the “perilous directions” that superstition and fanaticism give rise to. The answer given here to the question “Was anyone hurt?” is “Yes.”
Gregory Wolfe is the publisher and editor of Slant Books.