Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Fear - Chapter 1, Part 2 - Terminus

Professor Lowry, not so much suffering from malaria as he is giving it a tour of his hometown, goes for a walk around sleepy, quiet Atworthy College.  It sure is a sight for sore eyes "so long tortured by the searing glare of the spinning sun on brassy sand..."  huh.  Didn't know they had a desert on the Yucatรกn.

It's college-y as all hell, with buildings that somehow look aged even before construction is finished, ivy and elms, students walking around in jackets, windows rattling from some idiot's car-mounted sub-woofer, a fistfight breaking out over a parking space, potheads yelling at each other from across the soccer field, freshmen looking soulfully at cafeteria food they can't afford due to remorseless tuition hikes, construction cones shutting off a road because god forbid they renovate the campus over the summer... uh.  Okay, only some of that was in the book.

Anyway, we get a bit more about our main character here, as he has a moment's disquiet upon remembering his own history.  He grew up in "a great tomb of a house where no word was less than three syllables long and where the main attention paid to him was 'Hush!'," where he lost himself in stories from Swift and Shakespeare and Khayyam.  Though the third generation of Lowry to walk these paths, he was the first to experience any wanderlust, which in his case was brought about by an unfortunate incident during his own time as a student.  "A theft in his dorm, accusation, expulsion and disgrace; and three years later - three years too late to completely remove the scar - they had finally reached him to tell him that the guilty one had been found within a week after his running away."  Yes, that's a semicolon and dashes in the same sentence, deal with it.

This explains the opening illustration for this chapter, a black-and-white image of a chap surrounded by rings of pointing fingers a la Cookie Clicker.  Can't find any images to link of it, sorry.  But where'd Lowry flee to?  Why did he run off crying rather than fight against the false accusation?  What was he even accused of stealing?  Couldn't tell you.  See, the whole theft thing is only really relevant in this chapter, for reasons we're about to see.  I can't find any mention of it later on in the story.

Lowry's happy stroll is interrupted by an "anemic book-delver" summoning him before the university president.  Now, that lovely walk outside wasn't very scary, so when the scene changes to Jebson's office, the author tries to make up for it by mentioning the dead men staring "icily" out of picture frames and that the chairs were so deep "they might have been suspected of holding many a corpse that they had drowned."   Ooooh, spooky chairs.

Jebson's... well, the guy's an ass.  He's "very thin and white and old, so stiff he looked more like plaster than flesh," and he's here to make our protagonist's life miserable.  He's kind of like the Evil Dean of college comedies, except he's supposed to be the place's president, and he's working against a professor.

See, Jebson doesn't approve of  paying for expeditions so Lowry can run off to strange places, "consorting with the ungodly and scratching for knickknacks like a dog looking for a bone he has buried and forgotten."  Jebson knows "man is wholly a product of his own environment," and thus he doesn't see the point in studying foreign cultures.  He's not against education, of course, he just can't find the educational value in ethnography or anthropology.

He would be willing to let all that slide, however, were it not for Lowry's article for the Newspaper Weekly, which he signed as an Atworthy professor.  Sending an article to such a lowly rag can only be interpreted as a desperate bid for attention and cash.  And if that wasn't enough, there's the content of Lowry's letter!  "'Mankind's mental ills might be in part due to the phantoms of the witch doctors of yesterday!'"  Why, suggesting that shamans invented demons to control people through fear can't be read as anything but the prelude to an attack on Christianity itself!

It's in the middle of this tirade that Jebson brings up Lowry's "highly irregular" past as evidence of his true character.

"That matter was all cleared!" cried Lowry, blushing scarlet and twisting with pain at the memory.

"Perhaps.  Perhaps."

You know what they say: once a falsely-accused thief, always an atheist.

In the end, the controversy over Lowry's article... well, we haven't seen any controversy, even though the paper with the article came out last Sunday and it's currently Saturday, and Jebson only heard about it when a student pointed it out, but surely it's controversial and damaging the university's image.  Between the article in a paper nobody is complaining about, a past expulsion over a mistake, and Jebson's problems with the field of ethnography, he has no choice but to let Lowry go once the current semester is over in two months.

I guess this is from before tenure was invented?  And when colleges were bastions of conservatism rather than the festering pits of godless communism and anti-Americanism that they are today?  Because boy is it difficult to imagine this happening on a contemporary campus.  I also can't help but wonder whether Hubbard is putting some of his own college experiences into this, and if he identifies with Lowry, a seeker of knowledge shut down by a narrow-minded institution.  Instead of a guy who flunked out of the single Nuclear Physics course he took and subsequently wrote a guide to surviving radiation.

Lowry can't get a word in for his defense and shuffles out of the office, barely remembering to put his hat back on, which will form a large part of the rest of the story.  The hat, I mean.  He finds himself experiencing chills, but it's not the malaria, it's concern for his wife Mary.  While Lowry can easily find employment at a college with less of an asshole for its president, Mary will miss this college-town "world of teas and respect" once they inevitably move out.  The narration also takes a paragraph to explain that Lowry is just too decent a person to work out Jebson's jealous motivations for firing a swell, respectable guy like Lowry - instead all the professor can focus on is "Poor Mary.  Poor beautiful, sweet Mary."

And then, while having the vague "recollection of having an appointment somewhere" that he can't remember, Professor Jim Lowry finds himself in front of the house of his good friend Professor Tommy Williams.  And this is where the plot really begins.

It's not bad, I guess.  Nothing about the writing really stands out one way or another, at least when it comes to dialogue.  We could ask why Lowry has decided to accept his dismissal without a fight, but I suppose the nice thing about giving your main character malaria is that it neatly explains any questionable decision they make.  Or maybe that's the purpose of bringing up that college theft that got him expelled?  Establish that Lowry has a habit (2 out of 2 examples, decades apart) of running from his problems?  Was young Hubbard that subtle?  An alarming thought.

Can you spot the vitally important bit in this segment of the chapter?  It's nothing to do with the hat.

Back to Chapter 1, part 1

1 comment:

  1. Is it Mary? She has nothing to do with the hat, right? Unless he named his hat Mary.