James Tadd Adcox’s novella Repetition is a hypnotic, deeply funny, yet strangely affecting journey through sadness, archaic conflict resolution, Kierkegaard, and hosting an academic conference. It’s an exploration of repetition and dreams and the ill-fated, inexplicable childlike ambitions forever-incubating inside us. It’s really good, is what I’m trying to say.
The protagonist (also our unnamed and humble narrator) is a former president of the Constantin Constantius Society and a former professor, well a visiting professor, narrating (as narrators are wont to do) the events of his demise. The story begins with the conference he’s chairing, it’s on Repetition, a sort of novel/sort of essay by Constantin Constantius, a scholar who spent his life’s work exploring the possibility of repetition. There are other characters too. Things go wrong.
Repetition (the novella) is, in part, a campus novel(la). Not the kind of ivy and stone porn campus novel where tweed abounds and small towns are scandalized by illicit love affairs or hordes of characters intersect in increasingly improbable ways or smart people sit around saying smart, unpretentious things while being socially well-adjusted. No. This is the campus of Nabokov or DeLillo. It is absurd, governed by a primitive hierarchy heeded to only by those within it, and the air hangs heavy with existential angst, a cloying need for recognition, and that peculiar, endemic mix of self-doubt and self-aggrandizement.
The narrator is a slightly more polite, considerably less Russian Underground Man, just as slighted and marginalized (at least in his own mind) as Dostoevsky’s creation, and just as keenly aware of his insignificance within the larger sphere he operates in (here the university). He longs for not just the permanence of tenure, but the esteem and inclusion it promises. But for the narrator, all of academia—presented here as a kind of communal neurosis half-heartedly concealed beneath a sheen of professorial affectation—is fraught with elaborate sets of rules and expectations that prove a constant struggle to navigate. Lunch with a visiting Constantin Constantius luminary, in town for the conference, becomes a City of God power struggle as the narrator and his pony-tailed rival jockey for seat position at a pizza parlor, while a post-panel Q&A devolves into hysterical shouting, an impulsive declaration of love, and labyrinthine rephrasing of a single question.
But Repetition aspires to far more than satirizing higher education. The novella is written with a staggering sentence-level precision that infuses otherwise mundane moments with a kind of hallucinatory wistfulness (“I drove to the airport to pick up F. Barnabus Florantine, experiencing, along the way, my own rebirth”). Formally, the story is replete with footnotes and the voice, even in its most matter-of-factness, constantly teeters on profound meditation. The reason for all of this, it would seem, is that the narrator, who is not writing an academic article, cannot help writing his non-academic article as an academic article. For this is all he knows. Carefully couched observations, textually supported arguments, and footnotes. The result is a character defined by a pervasive sense of disconnectedness, a figure of tragicomic alienation, and a strange pathos because of it, usually in the very same moment. Consider his speech to Sandra, his teaching assistant, who neglected her conference duties after a bad breakup:
I had the feeling that I was supposed to “set her straight” about yesterday, to give her some speech about her actions and professionalism—I felt that she expected this and had steeled herself against it—but I had no idea what to say to her. That is, the general shape of the speech seemed apparent, the form of the thing, but it had no content.
The narrator’s insightfulness, how he comes to understand the world around him, exists in only draughts or torrents. He fears a mysterious, eternally-smoking, presumably Derrida-reading, faculty member known only as “the deconstructionist” for reasons he can’t explain, and harbors a deep, meaningful, but only just realized love for Sandra. For the narrator suffers the curse of the overly educated and those stuck in the governance of, as David Foster Wallace termed it, our own skull sized kingdoms. Which is to say, the narrator understands many things about ideologies and systems and Constantin Constantius and repetition. He does not understand people or the inexplicable forces that motivate them.
Yet, perhaps most entrancing of all, and the story’s greatest trick, is that Constantin Constantius is a real figure. Well sort of. It’s the pseudonym Søren Kierkegaard used for writing Repetition (his own Repetition, not the Repetition being reviewed here, James Tadd Adcox wrote that, which come to think of it, is a bit of a repetition itself). In Kierkegaard’s Repetition, seen in summary throughout Adcox’s Repetition, a young lover quests in vain for his intended. The meta implications of this threaten on Gordian complexity—with the narrator functioning as Constantius, the other author/narrator, and Sandra as the young lover, but the narrator of could also be the young lover, striving to fulfill the repetition of both his reality and the young lover he studies, or—I’ll stop now—while the question of repetition, namely whether it’s truly possible, assumes a sort of mythic importance. In the novella, the narrator seeks repetition, but of course what he really seeks is to feel some sense of meaning and order from the aggregate of experiences and sensations that make up his life. The irony, alas, (as Kierkegaard would discover) is that the only repetition we can be certain of is the failure to ever reach it.
Repetition, by James Tadd Adcox. Baltimore, Maryland: Cobalt, October 2016. 65 pages. $10.00, paper.
Paul Albano has a PhD in fiction writing from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His work has appeared in Cream City Review, Paper Darts, and Whiskey Island Magazine, among other places.