Publishing

Ever Wondered What Thomas Pynchon Thinks About Accreditation?

September 11, 2015

Art Winslow has a tantalizing theory, and he took to Harper’s Magazine on Thursday to air it. 

Mr. Winslow, formerly a literary editor of The Nation, recently came upon a 540-page novel called Cow Country — a comic romp, attributed to one Adrian Jones Pearson, that was released by an independent press in April to little fanfare. Press materials made a big deal of the fact that “Adrian Jones Pearson” is a pseudonym. Mr. Winslow, after a close reading, felt he could identify the real author lurking behind that nom de plume: Thomas Pynchon.

That’s a bold claim, made bolder by the novel’s decidedly un-Pynchonian subject matter: the accreditation of a community college. Cow Country is set at Cow Eye Community College, an institution in an unspecified Western (or west-Midwestern) state “that is at risk of losing its way, its history, and its accreditation all at the same time.” Our narrator and hero, Charlie, has just been brought on to serve as right-hand man to Dr. Felch, the campus chief. Can Charlie unite a divided faculty, keep the accreditors at bay, and find some measure of love and self-fulfillment in the process?

As the author himself has admitted, this isn’t exactly stirring stuff. “The main challenge is that it’s an incredibly dull subject that is not really worthy of literary consideration,” he told the website With Five Questions. “If you can write about regional accreditation in a new and exciting way — if you can somehow make it sexy — then that would surely qualify as an accomplishment worthy of literary immortality.”

So could one of the most intellectually voracious authors of our time really be playing narrative small-ball?

The short, honest answer: no. Mr. Winslow has chaired the jury for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, whereas I’m a guy who works at a newspaper, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. But if Adrian Jones Pearson is Thomas Pynchon, I’m William Gaddis.

It took less than two pages of Cow Country before it occurred to me that Mr. Winslow might just be having a bit of fun with us all. The novel shares Pynchon’s taste for the madcap and flair for colorful character names, but it’s hard to enumerate all the ways that the comparison breaks down. Pynchon’s plots are kaleidoscopic, but Pearson’s plot is fairly linear; Pynchon is a freewheeling polymath, but Pearson hammers on themes and jokes; Pynchon’s “jukebox”  is Pearson’s “juke box,” and so on.

In Cow Country, you’ll encounter plenty of scenes like this: 

“We drank, and when we were done another round of beers was brought out by the third man and we drank again. As we sat, the conversation went where it might; here and there the men would look up at the game on the old television and a shout would ring out after a long run from scrimmage or an important defensive stop.” 

C’mon, Pynchon wouldn’t be this vague. If he’s writing about a football game on TV, he’s inventing lyrics for a bawdy marching-band fight song. Or drawing a parallel between the “important defensive stop” and a forgotten skirmish from the Boer War. Or at least naming the dang teams. (For what it’s worth, Pynchon’s publisher told New York magazine that the book isn’t the famous author’s. Later on, at The New Republic, Alex Shephard offered evidence connecting Cow Country to a different author named A.J. Perry.)

♦ ♦ ♦

That said, we’re left with a loopy, ambitious satire of campus culture and accreditation. So let’s examine how it fares on those terms.

On the campus-culture front … well, it’s broad. Much is made of the factionalized faculty, which is divided into two camps that despise each other “in the way that vegetarians deplore meat while meat-eaters deplore vegetarians.” (The book has a recurring emphasis on beef. That might sound bizarre, but it’s clear that Cow Eye’s hometown is meant to be a fun-house-mirror version of a town like Garden City, Kan., where Tyson Foods is the leading employer and the community college boasts a terrific meat-judging team.)

Many jokes don’t land (at one point, a character utters the words “Smells like shih tzu in here!”). But some do, usually by demonstrating a deeper-than-surface-level understanding of campus culture. In his interview for the Cow Eye job, for example, Charlie faces “a battery of word-choice exercises,” including one in which “I was offered a pair of nouns — tenderloin and arugula, for example, or rawhide and tantra — and asked to choose the one that in my professional opinion was more indicative of an effective student-centered learning environment.” That’s a decent bit of clowning on the rise of pedagogical buzzwords.

Veterans of the climbing-wall wars might chuckle at how an “ill-conceived swimming pool,” with its attendant “expenditures on chlorine and pumps and lifeguards and liability insurance,” has become a campus millstone. Untenured lecturers will nod ruefully at this scene:

“‘And who are those people?’ I motioned to a dark table in the farthest corner of the room where a gloomy collection of half-lit faces sat staring blankly ahead. Each was wearing a black armband. ‘The adjuncts,’ she explained. ‘We’re not allowed to refer to them by name.’”

It’s harder to know what to make of other authorial decisions. In an ad absurdum parody of a team-building exercise, new members of the community college are deposited in a corral and told to catch and castrate a calf. This really happens. It’s a long scene. I skipped ahead — and I cannot stress how strange it feels to be writing these words right now — to the parts on accreditation.

Parts like this:

Two observations here: First, the phrase “bloated scrota” appears six times in this book. Weigh a potential purchase accordingly. Second, it’s in these wonky details of technology committees and feasibility studies that the novel seems, weirdly, to come to life. 

That makes Cow Country an interesting object to contemplate. But for all its commitment, and all its gonzo digressions, it’s not our first great novel about college accreditation. Such a book remains, alas, as elusive as Vheissu.

Update (Sunday, September 13, 11:03 a.m.): This article has been updated to add a link to a New Republic article arguing that A.J. Perry was the real author of Cow Country.

Brock Read is an editor who supervises coverage of government policy and academic labor, among other things. Follow him on Twitter @bhread, or drop him a line at brock.read@chronicle.com.