Maureen Medved grew up in Winnipeg and has lived and worked in Montreal and London. She received her MFA from UBC and has performed monologues from her novel, The Tracey Fragments (House of Anansi Press, 1998; Groundwood 2007). Bruce McDonald directed her screen adaptation of this work for The Tracey Fragments which won the Manfred Salzgeber Prize at the 57th annual Berlin Film Festival in 2007. Medved's plays have been produced in Vancouver, Waterloo and Toronto. She lives in Vancouver and has taught at the Creative Writing Program at UBC.

Black Star by Maureen Medved (Anvil Press $20)

Review by John Moore

Simple formula for a compelling novel: show the best people on their worst behaviour.

Since universities are generally supposed to be inhabited by the best and brightest people in our culture, they've been fertile ground for ironic, darkly comic fiction.

In Black Star, Maureen Medved plows a field that has produced Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim, Tom Sharpe's Porterhouse Blue, Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man and several satirical piss-takings by the late great Peter de Vries, to name but a few.

But Black Star resembles its ancestors like children resemble their parents; superficially. In the opening chapters, we're on a campus that seems generically familiar from both experience and fiction. The stock character of the loveable Absent-Minded Professor has long since been replaced by a faculty of dysfunctional, manipulative, careerist social and sexual misfits whose lapses of memory are deliberate strategic moves in the game of university power politics-the competition for funding and tenure.
Transmitting the essentials of scholarship to a new generation doesn't top the agenda.

Setting her story in the philosophy department of an unnamed West Coast Canadian university, (nudge, nudge, wink, wink), Medved uses a blade sharp as a box-cutter to open a Pandora's package of human duplicity.
Philosophy professors do not, as newbie undergrads often assume, study The Meaning of Life. Instead, they try to refine and define the language we use to apprehend 'reality' and-if they're very brave-to establish criteria that can be used to make ethical judgements and decisions.

Black Star's Del Hanks has tried to be one of those courageous thinkers. Ten years ago, she published The Real and the Unreal, to positive peer reviews. For Del-now fat, forty and still single, from a family of chronic under-achievers-philosophy has been more than a scholarly discipline. It was her ticket out of Smallville, U.S.A., and the Boethius-approved consolation for humiliations endured in every other aspect of human relations. Her impending bid for tenure is more than just another career step. Tenure is the one thing that can validate her whole pathetically constrained life.
Unfortunately, her tenure bid hinges on getting a publication deal for her new work, forebodingly titled The Catastrophic Decision, and writing it is starting to look like one of those fateful, book-a-ticket-on-the-Titanic choices. Meanwhile, her life is being weighed in a balance by a committee of careerist creeps and feebs, all of whom are in thrall to the department's new junior lecturer, Helene Lebec.

Supermodel gorgeous, dressed like a drug-dealer's girlfriend, author of several best-selling books on the ethics of animal rights and other hot-button topics beloved of the politically correct and a frequent TV talk show guest, Lebec exudes star-quality. Thirty years ago, she would have been snubbed as "a popularizer"; in any academic common room for "dumbing-down the discipline."; In today's pervasive climate of celebrity, she's an ornament to the faculty, instantly possessed with massive clout that may be ephemeral, but that's all the more reason to use it fast, while it lasts.

No spoiler alert intended, but to describe Medved's novel as a "black comedy"; is on par with real estate bumph advertising timeshare condos in Hell. After an ironically amusing, deceptive start, Black Star chronicles the descent of a fragile, brittle personality, who has put her few eggs in the only basket she has, into the nightmarish pandemonium of total paranoia.
Del's manuscript of The Catastrophic Decision becomes increasingly surreal, mirroring her personal disintegration as she makes one irrational bad choice after another.

If I had to shelve Black Star in a library, I'd put it in the horror/psychological section, rubbing jacket shoulders with such modern gothic classics as Robert Bloch's Psycho and the collected works of Stephen King. (I'd put Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman on the same shelf. Just saying.)

In Black Star, Medved takes on one of the toughest challenges in fiction: creating a main character, a protagonist, with whom it is almost impossible to sympathize, though we may identify with her in our most private moments.

Del's nemesis, Helene Lebec, like so many of the fifteen-second celebrities our culture spews into the limelight, is easy to despise. Del is a more ambivalent character; the brainy goof, the smart nerd, solipsistic, bereft of social skills but possessed of a sharp mind and cutting tongue, easier to hate than to even casually like.

Few authors have dared to give such characters more than a supporting role as designated villains. The narrator of Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier, is a contemptible, passive cuckold. John (Rumpole of the Bailey) Mortimer wrote a trilogy of novels around Lesley Titmuss, a traitor to his working class origins who rises politically by embracing the Tory politics of his masters. Mortimer also wrote Dunster, the definitive novel about the quintessential bad friend, whose narrator is a feeble in the mould of Ford's narrator.

In Del Hanks, Medved has created an unlikeable but not unadmirable character and invites us to care about her...or not.
That would be an ethical decision. See your PHIL 102 instructor on Monday.

John Moore continues to write better than most people in the human race, from Garibaldi Highlands. He has a collection of essays forthcoming and he has tenure in his garden.


[BCBW 2007] "Fiction" "Movie"