By Randy Boyagoda
Pity poor Prin. The college where he teaches is failing. His area of study, marine references in Canadian literature (post-“English Patient” seahorses), is in the midst of a dry patch. His marriage to Molly feels increasingly unglamorous, and even a trip to the Toronto Zoo ends in the death of one of his daughters’ favorite primates, prompting Prin to come clean to his kids about his cancer diagnosis. Then this: Before the year’s out, the novel’s first line reveals, Prin, a self-doubting, bike-riding, practicing Roman Catholic, will become a full-fledged suicide bomber.
“Original Prin,” Randy Boyagoda’s third novel, is an original animal, a comedy of literary and cultural references, with wordplay involving unfunny matters like cancer, a crisis of faith and Islamic terrorism, as well as easier comedic subjects like juice-box fatherhood and academic power plays.
Spotted early, Prin’s prostate cancer is excised along with his prostate. Mortality postponed, he turns his attention toward the fate of his college — the University of the Family Universal, or U.F.U. (the old name, Holy Family College, sounded “too Catholic,” Boyagoda writes) — and then a problematic attraction to his predatory ex-girlfriend, Wende, a consultant hired to save the college by (a) turning it into an elder-care assisted living facility and (b) partnering with an academic group in a fictional war-torn Middle Eastern country called Dragomans.
The story takes us then to Molly’s family’s home in Milwaukee, where Prin witnesses two near-death moments that end up being elaborate pranks: the first staged by one of Prin’s nephews to win the attention of a pretty lifeguard, the second the shooting of his nephews’ favorite right-wing shock jock by what turns out to be a group of antiwar paintball marksmen.
What to make of all these high jinks? Boyagoda finds dark absurdities in all corners: A self-promoting colleague promises to share her personal mindfulness space with Prin until he recovers; during confession, a priest talks about “Star Wars”; Wende’s stated seat designation, 34C, for her flight to Dragomans, leaves Prin wondering if it might be “information meant to remind him of something.” A young Dragomans man wears a T-shirt that reads “We Found the Weapons of Mass Destruction,” with arrows pointed at his biceps.
There are references throughout to those who were likely Boyagoda’s influences: Kingsley Amis (Prin’s comically domineering father is named Kingsley), Evelyn Waugh, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. Most of this is clever, often ingenious, but the frequency of one-liners works against the novel’s trajectory. The comedic exit ramps feel like authorial escapes, as if we can’t go more than a page or two before the next absurdity, and so we’re less involved in Prin’s journey, and more aware of Boyagoda’s restless intellect.
Once arrived in Dragomans, Prin endures a cab trip with a driver who loves “the Taylor Swift” and a Steve Jobs-style presentation by the country’s newest minister of education and strategic realignment initiatives, a Silicon Valley exile who wears wire-rimmed glasses and a black mock-turtleneck T-shirt and introduces his cheering audience to Dragomans 2.0, then segues to Prin’s lecture on Kafka by saying the writer “absolutely crushed a story about metamorphosis.”
In discussions that night on the dismantling of U.F.U., Wende, “the ice queen bitch-goddess of the wordplay universe,” presses her knee against Prin under the table and lures him into a kiss that throws him into a panic. Prin then bungles a phone conversation with his family that leaves him feeling adrift. Without revealing how suicide bombing figures into the final act of the book, it’s enough to say that it fits into Boyagoda’s absurdist design and raises, albeit late, some of the book’s most fascinating questions about fanaticism and the state of the modern world. Prin evolves in surprising ways, and tensions spike. For readers feeling confounded at the end, fear not. It’s the first in a planned trilogy.
Tom Barbash’s latest novel is “The Dakota Winters.”
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