Search View Archive

Kafka’s Campus

Tom Whalen
The President in Her Towers
(Ellipsis Press, 2012)

From a pair of tall towers, a German university is ruled by the brilliant and controversial President Ihre Magnifizenz (German for “Your Magnificence”), who commands the fear (and trembling) of her many existential deans, including the Dean of Why I Am Here, the Dean of Let Me Have It, the Dean of I Can’t Take Any More, the Dean of Oh Lord What Are We Do To Do Now That Our Rope Has Ended, the Dean of Why Must We Go On With This, The Dean of I Can’t Go On, and The Dean of Fear and Trembling himself.

The President also commands the complete devotion of her personal assistant, Herr Thomas Abjectus, who serves as our sweet, sycophantic, and wildly subjective narrator throughout Tom Whalen’s The President in Her Towers.

Towers is the self-aware sort of book where it would be fair play for the protagonist to happen upon a newspaper blurb for the very book we are reading, as Abjectus does late in the book:

Die Universität is a tale of high political intrigue, a study in the effects of power on a President, as narrated by her personal assistant, at a strange university, known eponymously as the Universität, somewhere in southern Germany… Danger and fear swirl around the President and her loyal aide as they try to discover who or what is behind the rumors of subversive deans plotting an overthrow of the Universität, or worse. Suspense at every imbedded turn! It’s a romp, a riot, a gay escapade of the wildest imagination, and a true and serious and caring insider’s look at the machinations of academe.

Or, rather, it sounds like a blurb for the rewarding and sometimes challenging novel we are reading, but poured through a blunt and upbeat filter. For my great admiration for this book, you’ll never hear me call it a romp.

More Nathaniel Wests’s Lonelyhearts than Dave Eggers’ Staggering Genius, this metafictional moment is played not with a wink but with real despair, a confirmation to Herr Abjectus that “[o]bviously others were enough in the know to know how both to reveal and obfuscate the truth.”

Whalen’s enough in the know, too. Much of the author’s game is to pile on as many potential unrealities as possible: Dreams, rumors, fiction, fables, erroneous reports, and mistranslations abound.

All the narrative obfuscation is matched by the cold, snowy weather, which is studied extremely closely (and nontraditionally) at the university. Whatever and whoever the university exists for, it’s not for its students. These shadowy creatures exist in the novel mostly in theory, awaiting what Abjectus calls “that dreaded day when they must leave the Tower and find a purpose that is not pre-ordained.” As with all universities, fate exists while you are inside but not once you’ve been turned loose.

Whalen is an incredible stylist who generally prefers to bury his sense of humor deep: It makes sense, then, that the book’s funniest moments are those in which Herr Abjectus writes explicitly to amuse and entertain his boss. If there’s a flavor I was greedy for more of, it’s this one. When the President suddenly goes missing a third of the way into the book, his concern for her threatens to obliterate the deliberate part of the narrator’s sense of humor.

Abjectus (like his author) is an American abroad, and although Abjectus is semi-fluent in the German language, the culture itself remains closed to him. Not that Abjectus minds: He has gratefully given himself over, not to Germany or the university but to an individual. All that matters is the President, an authoritarian mother figure who has swooped in to take the place of the parents who died early in his childhood.

Kafka fans will appreciate the attention Whalen pays to the pointless bureaucratic repetitions that make a University appear busy, but Herr Abjectus, unlike The Trial’s K., has no problem with these inefficiencies, so confident is he in the President’s leadership. The other Austrian writer to bring up is Thomas Bernhard, for this is a first-person obsessor’s tale to the last page, but again, Abjectus is set apart by his devotion: It does not drive him mad that he is less than his President; he only hopes he can assist her to the best of his ability.

Each time Magnifizenz is about to amaze her assistant by revealing her superhuman Presidential powers, she warns Herr Abjectus that he must erase what he is about to see from his own memory so that “what memory of it you will have will not be memory but dream, a dream dreamed by a dreamed dreamer,” further muddying our ability to trust his account.

While much of the President’s greatness may be Abjectus’s own fabrication, the truth behind any devotion is that the devotion’s object is ultimately just a person. “For too long you have thought of me as a figure from fantasy, a queen in a Tower,” the President warns Abjectus, “when all along I have only been and only always will be Ihre Magnifizenz.” (It’s so hard for a woman named Her Magnificence to effectively communicate her humility.)

Ultimately, Whelan’s titular President is both human and superhuman, both missing and ever-present, both mortal and immortal. All of which is both our narrator’s projection and the stone cold truth.


Gabe Durham

GABE DURHAM is the author of FUN CAMP, new from Publishing Genius Press. Other writings have appeared in Hobart, Mid-American Review, Quarterly West, the Rumpus, The Lifted Brow, and DIAGRAM. He edited Keyhole Magazine and Dark Sky Magazine. Gabe lives in Los Angeles, CA.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2013

All Issues