BOOK REVIEW: Black Star by Maureen Medved

 
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You might want to get that checked out, they might say to me.

What? My insanity?

Oh, I will, I would tell them.

It’s at the top of my To Do list. After this, this and that.

Forty-year-old philosopher Del Hanks is desperate for tenure at her third-rate university, but lacks the motivation to finish the book that would help her to secure it. Aging, angsty and filled with doubt, Del is balancing dangerously on the precipice of self-destruction. Enter Helene LeBec, a youthful, beautiful wunderkind with a six-figure book deal and the potential to yank Del’s dream out from under her. She has hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, wears short plaid skirts, is married to a rock star, and Tweets regularly about animal rights. Del suspects LeBec is trying to purge the department of anyone unseemingly, and quickly beings to fear and resent her new, shiny colleague.

Over the course of one academic year, Del becomes fixated on LeBec and everything inside her scantily-clad body and whip-smart mind. As the tension between the two academics amplifies, information about Del’s past - in particular her Ivey League education - comes to light, exposing the trauma behind her self-doubt and the relationship with an older man that made her so terribly bitter. As Del’s academic life begins to backslide, so too does her romantic one, culminating in a second affair that could be described as the polar opposite of the first.

Black Star is a comedy built on bleakness. It holds a magnifying glass to the insidious competitiveness of academic life and the mental stress it puts on researchers, all while offering an hilariously exaggerated example of what can happen when it all becomes too much. It’s no coincidence that several campus novels published in recent years have been steeped in horror and exaggeration. Mona Awad’s 2019 bestseller Bunny, set in the creative writing department of a prestigious university, revolves around a group of obsessive female students who become wrapped up in the occult. Sarah Henstra’s award-winning novel The Red Word terrifyingly examines gender politics and escalating violence on college campuses. Universities are rife with atmosphere and character, and yet they also symbolize the nastier sides of Western life - political tension, racial and economic inequality, gendered violence, mental illness. Novels about them tend to be critical in nature, and Black Star fits into the mold while offering something new in telling the university life story from the perspective of a professor.

I was an imposter. My academic position was based on a fabric of lies and deception that began to tear with the application of any sort of pressure. The demands of academia whipped and brutalized me.

Black Star uses the wildly popular device of an unreliable, or at least untrustworthy, narrator. Del’s state declines so quickly and dramatically that it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not. Like the unnamed narrator in Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation and the bumbling protagonist of Halle Butler’s The New Me, Del is stuck somewhere between wanting to improve herself and wanting to blame everyone else for the problems she’s faced in life. Her apathy and insecurity combine to create a character that’s at once and vile and completely understandable. You’ll fluctuate between wanting to hug her and wanting to slap her across the face.

At one point, fairly early in her deterioration, Del imagines what her life would be like if she’d never pursued academia, if she’d just “just accepted the potential of my mediocrity.” Her fear of LeBec and her youthful beauty represents a universal truth: there’s always going to be someone better, someone brighter, someone more interesting - and in this day and age someone with more followers - but does that mean it’s not even worth trying? With an Ivey League degree and a good job Del still results to increasingly troubling - and perhaps even illegal - self-sabotage, demonstrating what it’s like to live in a world where your best is no longer good enough.

Maureen Medved, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, writes in a stream-of-conscious style, using Del’s internal monologue as the main dialogue in Black Star. She unflinchingly examines the more troubling aspects of Del’s psychology, ultimately producing a character study of age, fear and bad decisions. There’s something deliciously gothic about Black Star. It’s a bit creepy, a whole lot cringey, and is sure to elicit laughter and not-so-subtle self reflection.