The Academic Novel Turns Surreal: A Review of D. Harlan Wilson’s “Primordial: An Abstraction”


by D. Harlan Wilson
Anti-Oedipus Press

One of the rarest, and by far most enjoyable, literary occurrences is picking up a new book by a writer whose work you like and realizing the narrative is precisely the one you’ve always wanted that author to write. D. Harlan Wilson’s Primordial afforded me that unusual pleasure. I’ve been a fan of Wilson’s writing for a few years. With each new book, he stands at the edge of strange fiction and then propels himself into uncharted territory with a bag full of exploding language, a sharp intelligence that borders on insanity, and a bizarre sense of humor that feeds on creating new and infinitely weirder things from the battered pieces of whatever he happens to be deconstructing in that text.

In Primordial, a nameless professor has his Ph.D. revoked and is forced to go back to the university to repeat his doctoral studies in order to get it back. While the university looks the same as the first time he was there, things have changed. For starters, most of his cohorts are ex-doctors trying to redeem themselves. The administrative personnel seems addicted to incompetence, the professors are mostly useless, redundancy permeates everything, and pornography has taken over the campus and crews can be found shooting porn around the university. Between classes, struggles with academic bureaucracy, establishing his alpha male status though hyperviolent acts, and trying to keep somewhat in touch with his family and reality, time collapses around the professor-turned-student and academia crumbles both physically and as a concept.

In his oeuvre (a word he’d probably use), Wilson has repeatedly made academia the victim of his critiques, but he has done so within the context of novels whose main focus was something else. In Primordial, deconstructing and exposing higher education is the primary emphasis of the narrative, and the result is at once hilarious and heartbreaking. Rather than going straight to the bizarro side of things, Wilson slowly builds his way there, paving his way with descriptions that, despite their seemingly outré nature, are just perfectly exaggerated versions of what everyone who’s been part of academia already knows (even if her or she refuses to accept it):

The University is embossed in trees. The Office of the Provost is in the nicest building on campus. All of the administration buildings exhibit a gothic beauty that flirts with the Kantian sublime, unlike the instructional buildings, which are essentially tenements, lanky and oxidized and in some cases rubbled. Because of low wages, most faculty can’t afford rent and must live in their offices, often with their families; laundry streams out of the windows on frayed lengths of twine. Administrators, on the other hand, enjoy unlimited creature comforts, ranging from high ceilings and Scandinavian furniture to walk-in humidors and spitshined bidets in every bathroom.

Primordial is fast, sharp, and weird, and that combination is what Wilson consistently delivers like no other author out there. More than a funny critique of university life and the politics involved in every aspect of it, this short novel dismantles higher education, places each element under a microscope, and then makes fun of it all in a way that each humorous jab is balanced by a vicious and devastatingly accurate blow. Wilson has been through the process and now is part of it as a professor, so his knowledge, as well as his disillusionment, shines through.

Hyperviolence, masculinity, sex, intellectual prowess, language, and desire are all sine qua non elements of Wilson’s work, which means that some of it requires a fair amount of engagement to be understood (luckily, it can be enjoyed regardless of level of engagement). Surprisingly, despite the fact that all those elements are here, this is one of the author’s most approachable texts. Even when the author is playing with time or stating that the work of Deleuze and Guattari is easy to understand (and he’s one of a handful of people who I believe have actually understood it), the narrative remains accessible, fun, twisted in a way that shatters logic but presents the reader with a new reality to replace it:

It has been years since I’ve seen my parents.

Their last visit was over a decade ago.

I barely remember what they look like, and I don’t own any photographs, not of them, not of anybody, or anything.

The ability of the photograph to freeze time is something I have always deeply resented. Frozen time is no time at all.

I call my wife to break the news but the line has been disconnected and I can’t be sure that I even own a phone anymore. I’m not sure I even know what a phone is.

D. Harlan Wilson is one of those rare voices in contemporary fiction that deserves to be called incomparable. He understands strange, intelligent fiction and stands in the middle of it, pushing out in all directions like a rhizomatic monster that demands new space. Primordial cuts down to the marrow of academia and then plays around with its blood, and has harrowing as that sounds, reading about it is as compelling, and enlightening, as any graduate course out there.

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