” Most of my colleagues had reacted squeamishly to the Spelling Thing and the rift it caused, like prepubescent children subjected to a film about boys’ and girls’ blooming bodies. They didn’t like either of the two available options. They said nothing. It was easy to condemn them. I assured myself that their refusal to sid with me proved they were against me; that they were passive and guilty; that not to decide is decide. ” (52)
Mark Sternum is a grammarian—the guardian of the English language and its usage. His love of order extends into his meticulously constructed life, even though love and family cannot always be made to agree as easily as subject and verb. Downing’s gimmicky novel revolves around spelling, grammar and corrct usage, as intercalary passages of cutesy grammatical humor are inserted at the end of chapters as though they were insights.
A case can be made that these tutorials, both practical and humorous, are actually sly underlinings of subjects and themes brought up in the chapters themselves. The book’s protagonist is a college professor in Boston who is fired for not passing an African-American single mother who failed a spelling test. Mark, who is full of droll observations about the rules that govern the English language, claims that he is only doing his job and the job is not a cause. But the student accuses his standards being discriminatory.
In his estimation, everything was eratz, inauthentic—my garden, American history, his marriage, the Sjaker museums, the Catholic church, box cereal, and even his own best book of photographs. I believed more than ever in the utter truth of his death in 1982. I did not doubt that the force of my mother’s will had been enough to keep him alive, if only just, for forty odd years. (167)
As Mark monitors the ensuing academic skirmish from a distance, he turns his affection instead to history of Shakers community and his father, a famous photographer for his pictures of empty Shaker buildings, who disappeared many years earlier and is thought to be dead. But an old man who claims to be a Shaker named Brother Thomas turns up at Mark’s house and appears to be the long-lost father himself. Then we are directed to the relationship between Mark and his lover, who after ten years decides to move in with him. The narrative is delicate but not sentimental, focusing on the mundane matters of their relationship.
Then comes the major subplot—a long historical flashback about a Shaker girl who sees a dark-skinned man that the community, in the midst of its decline, wants to believe is a mystical vision of a black Jesus. This story is interwoven with the contemporary goings-on. Thw Shaker stretch steals the limelight, and the material is first-rate, making up the strength that the rest of the book lacks. While I enjoy the dish of academic politics and America’s obsession with race, my problem with Perfect Agreement is that far too many story lines, and styles, are trotted out, played with and then more or less abandoned.
288 pp. Berkeley Trade. Paper. [Read/
Skim/ Toss] [ Buy/Borrow]