As an English professor, I’ll admit I have a fascination with novels about college. Life in the academy is wonderful, but it’s rarely racy or uproariously funny, so I find often perverse pleasure in the depiction of that life as sultry, funny, or dangerous. In Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, I reveled in the discomfort of an untenured lecturer at a stodgy English college who struggles to keep his job in an odd world of madrigal weekends. I cringed at the depiction of Midwestern university life in Moo, where in one wonderful chapter titled “Who’s in Bed with Whom,” Jane Smiley explains a complex matrix of affairs between and among faculty and graduate students. In John Hassler’s Dean’s List, I laughed at the absurdity of Professor Leland Edwards’ struggles to maintain the academic integrity of a fourth-rate northern Minnesota college whose motto has recently been changed to “Paul Bunyan’s Alma Matter.”
Will Lavender’s Obedience promised to be a new version on the formula—a psychological thriller set in the college classroom. The book opens as the cool Dr. Williams—we know he is cool because he wears jeans, Nikes, and carries no papers or syllabi—opens his Logic and Reasoning course with the simple announcement: “There’s been a murder.” And that, he goes on to explain, is to be the course. The seven young women and men in the course have six weeks to use logic and reasoning to prevent a hypothetical murder.
The premise, ridiculous as it is, is fun. Each of the three main characters, Dennis, Brian, and especially Mary, are drawn into the hunt for the killer. The problem is that these three act in a way that shows little logic and no reasoning. Lavender has a dim view of students, it seems. I’ve never known students—even freshmen, and certainly not upperclassmen like these—to so wholly accept an assignment without challenge or remorse. Moreover, I’ve never known students so unable to see through a professor’s hidden agenda. When it becomes clear that the murder may not be hypothetical, these students don’t think for a second that they are being played. When they feel emotionally abused, the most they muster is a half-hearted attempt to walk out of class or a note to the dean. I’m generally willing to suspend disbelief in the service of a good story, but it becomes clear as Obedience progresses that Lavender only respects his villain: his other characters are only pawns to be manipulated, toyed with, and controlled. Little respect for characters translates eventually as little respect for the reader, and what was a promising novel eventually becomes grating.
Will Lavender obviously revels in dropping in references in Obedience to Stanley Milgram’s “Obedience to Authority” experiments from the 1960s. Milgram showed that given the correct circumstances and prompted by the right kind of authority figure, almost anyone could become a torturer. In subsequent years, Milgram became a figure of infamy in psychological circles because of the lasting trauma he inflicted on his experimental subjects. After finishing Obedience, it seems that Lavender has learned Milgram’s lessons on torture, but he has yet to consider the kind of lasting trauma he might inflict on his readers.