Funny and genuinely weird
by Keith Taylor
James Hynes's two previous books, Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror and The Lecturer's Tale, both received a good deal of national attention for their blend of biting academic satire and sometimes chilling horror. Of all the writers looking, sometimes desperately, for new ways to tell stories, Hynes is one of the most successful. He has combined highbrow literary influences with wonderful popular ones like Buffy the Vampire Slayer in a way that is both very funny and genuinely weird. In his brand-new novel, Kings of Infinite Space, Hynes has broadened the object of his satire: it's in the workaday world of a government bureaucracy, in this case the Texas Department of General Services (TxDOGS, for short), an office . . . housed in a wide, low-ceilinged, underlit room in the shape of a hollow square. In the center of the square was a courtyard where a sun-blasted redwood deck surrounded an old live oak, which was fighting a losing battle with oak wilt. The offices along the outer walls, with views of the parking lot and the river, were taken by senior managers. Middle managers had offices along the inner wall with a view of the dying oak tree, and everybody else occupied the honeycomb of cubicles in between, where nearly every vertical surface was grown over as if by moss with stubbly gray fabric.
Paul Trilby, Hynes's protagonist, is an ex-academic who began his fall in an earlier Hynes novel. Now he has reached bottom, barely able to afford no-brand hot dogs on his salary as a temp typist at TxDOGS. He reads H. G. Wells novels on his morning breaks and falls asleep in the bathroom. And, in a wonderful Hynesian move, he is haunted by the ghost of his ex-wife's cat, a beast he murdered.
He is not long at the office before he begins to notice strange things: coworkers who never work but who always have their
work finished, odd pale-skinned men wearing ties and pocket protectors who appear at unexpected moments. This may sound like an extension of his academic satires, but Hynes doesn't stop there. In one of the earlier books, his character sold his soul for tenure. In Kings of Infinite Space, Paul Trilby makes a different choice. The humor is still there people really do laugh out loud when reading Hynes novels but this time there is also a vague glimmer of nobility. Paul Trilby even falls in love, allowing this book to be funny, frightening, smart, and sexy! It is absolutely unlike anything you have ever read.
James Hynes returns to Ann Arbor to read from Kings of Infinite Space at Shaman Drum Bookshop on Thursday, May 20.
[Originally published in May, 2004.]