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Posted on 7 Feb 2023 in Fiction |

JOHN DALE The Faculty. Reviewed by Airlie Lawson

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This insider’s satire of university life is no advertisement for an academic career.

The premise of John Dale’s new novel is simple, age-old even: ambitious young thing gets dream job – but discovers that, in reality, it’s closer to a nightmare. The book opens with a half-page prologue which suggests, in content and tone, that the story will be about a crime: a woman has fallen from the twelfth floor of high-rise building. Did she jump? Or was she pushed? That the plot might turn on this crime is suggested by the revelation that Sarah, from whose point of view the incident is related, didn’t just know the woman, but wanted her dead.

Dale, too, is an award-winning writer, with a Ned Kelly for true crime (Huckstepp, 2000) and another for crime fiction (Dark Angel, 1995). Not that crime is his only interest. Dale’s other works include memoir, literary fiction and, most recently, The Blasphemy Laws (2019), a reimagining of Orwell’s 1984. He is also a long-time academic. And it is, in fact, Dale’s experience as an academic that really informs The Faculty, and while there is a crime, the novel can’t be classified as ‘dark academia’ (a sub-genre currently enjoying a huge revival); rather, it is  a satire.

Set in the fictional Central Sydney University (CSU), the protagonist is 31-year-old Dr Sarah Dixon, the Sarah of the prologue. She’s been employed to teach memoir, even though she has no experience teaching, or writing, memoir. Nonetheless, she’s thrilled about the appointment; it’s a foot in the door – and her ticket out of her small south coast home town. No longer is she one of the ‘precariat’ of casual lecturers, a group who, she notices on her first day, are housed together in the ageing Humanities tower block in what looks like a call centre; no, she has a year’s contract and an office. Well, the office is not hers, it belongs to Deidre, who usually teaches memoir but is off on a world tour promoting her bestselling account of her affair with a one-armed builder. (A modern-day Lady Chatterley, by the sound of it.) Fortunately for Sarah, being part of the foremost humanities faculty in the country turns out not to be about teaching. Within days of Sarah’s arrival, there are protests about a distinguished poet being offered a fellowship, based on an – unfounded – rumour of racism; she’s apparently drunkenly succumbed to her boss’s advances; and, more importantly, a new Dean has been appointed to deal with a multi-million-dollar budget deficit.

In her first speech, this new Dean, Professor Crow, says she wants the Faculty to ‘emerge from our budgetary chrysalis like a large, beautiful butterfly’. New jobs, she promises, along with ‘smaller classes, fewer teaching hours’ and ‘a renewed focus on impact and quality instead of quantity and obscurity’. Gradually, the staff learn how this will happen and, naturally, it isn’t quite in the way they’d hoped.

Like any good villain – which Crow is very quickly revealed to be – she’s a delight, one of those characters who light up the page. Fluent in corporate-management-speak and suspiciously right-on, her plan to get the CSU Faculty of Humanities back on track is based on inclusivity and diversity. It begins with the slogan ‘Rebuilding the Future & Unbuilding the Past’, and includes: ‘renaming all the disciplines’; getting rid of History (‘unlearning the past’), as well as renaming the Library ‘My Learning Space’, and removing the books. It’s all chillingly plausible. Sarah’s job soon becomes about keeping her job, working out which of her eccentric new colleagues she can trust (as well as convincing them they can trust her) – and working the system. She takes to heart the advice of the one colleague she considers a friend, Dr Beetrice Mung, Lecturer in Gender & Sexuality Studies: ‘Persistence and belligerence – these are the essential qualities for academic career progression.’

If Australian universities have in recent years been under attack by governments insisting they justify their very existence, universities more widely have long been attacked by authors looking for comic subjects. Their enclosed environments, archaic traditions, bureaucracy, hierarchies, students and staff offer a built-in cast, location, structure and the potential for conflict-littered plots. Over the last century we’ve seen Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue, and David Lodge’s Campus Trilogy, just to name a few that have lasted. However, as with these examples, many university satires are the kinds of books in which no one is spared. The Faculty combines a focus on departmental power struggles with a cold splash of social realism (in this case, Sarah’s background, which includes a mentally unwell brother, intended to make the reader care about her). In a way, The Faculty is perhaps more reminiscent of Netflix’s recent comedy-drama The Dean, starring the wonderful Sandra Oh in the central role – it’s simultaneously silly and astute, but also sensitive: the characters aren’t all there to be mocked, ridiculed and walked over for the reader’s entertainment.

The book does have its problems. It is over-populated – the cast list at the end appears too late to be of any use – but that’s a small gripe. A bigger concern is Sarah herself. She’s a millennial who all too often sounds, and thinks, like a baby boomer. She hears ‘the distinctive sound of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”’ (released 1972); describes her boss (seen in unforgiving early morning light) as ‘no oil painting’; judges people by what they wear (often outfits that sound not outlandish, but individual); and thinks that it’s unreasonable for a student to ask for a trigger warning before a screening of Un Chien Andalou. (Anyone who has seen it will, surely, understand why if not a trigger warning, some kind of warning might be useful.) Of course, this could be intentional: Sarah has spent her life with her head in books. And her thesis is called ‘The Beach as a Site of Sexual Transgression in Post-War Australian Literature’. Perhaps she was influenced by all that post-war reading.

Ultimately, does this matter? No. The Faculty is still a very entertaining insider’s account of contemporary scholarly life (and it has a satisfying conclusion). Readers who’ve worked in academia will no doubt squirm in recognition or outrage, students might be shocked – and anyone thinking an academic career might be a refreshing change to working in the private sector will think twice before handing in their resignation.

John Dale The Faculty Brio Books 2022 PB 320pp $29.99

Airlie Lawson is currently Postdoctoral Fellow on Untapped: the Australian Literary Heritage Project at the University of Melbourne and a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University. She is the author of Don’t Tell Eve (Vintage, 2010), a satire on contemporary book publishing, and has a monograph forthcoming based on her PhD thesis, Conditions of Access: Mapping the value of Australian novels in the twenty-first century global marketspace.

You can buy The Faculty from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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