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Howard Pflanzer

by By David Lansky
200 pp. $19.99, paper

The Cutting Edge by David Lansky, is a modern picaresque novel, which could be called in a subtitle The Trials and Tribulations of Jenny Delight and Her Encounters With Professor Snyder. The novel vividly captures life on a contemporary college campus satirizing student life, bureaucratic dictats and cultural clashes. Bookended by an Introduction and an Afterward, the novel is divided into two parts, The College Essays of Jenny Delight and Bill of Sale. The college librarian, Jillian Spamaro, speculates in the Introduction that the essays by Jenny Delight, which form the larger part of the novel, are written in her voice by Professor Snyder in an act of literary ventriloquism. In light of this suggestion sometimes Jenny seems too worldly wise for a young college student, but she is a very funny character with an ironic sense of humor. Jenny, who wears make-down a cosmetic to conceal her beauty, is a student at Old Windsor, a third tier state college whose name is a gloss on the name of an actual SUNY college. It is a dispiriting place for Jenny with one bright spot, her Sociology Professor Snyder. Through her descriptions we see why she thinks Snyder is a cool dude. She says “Just the other day, he was talking about how the rich get richer and the poor get prison … Just think of it prisons and Wal-Mart: cultural icons of the promised land.” Her professor proclaims malls and their culture in the suburbs are “crimes against humanity.” Jenny analyzes all the events on the campus that she witnesses or experiences in a framework of constructs derived from the weltenschaung of Professor Snyder. She claims that when he lectured on “repressive desublimation” a term coined by Herbert Marcuse she followed his discussion of the weakening of our superego under consumer capitalism until he said how cell phones and cars were a new form of control over our desires. Then she felt a disconnect “because my phone and car are my connections with the world.”

The college motto for Old Windsor is “Shaping character, Creating Leaders, Inspiring change. Some people succeed because they are destined to, but most people succeed because they are determined to.” She critiques this slogan-like motto grammatically and analytically through the eyes of her professor. In fact the campus rules to control the students are exhaustive and punitive. When Jenny shows the rules to her Professor he comments, “I have never seen such a long list of things that people cannot do.” Jenny’s friend Nicola adds, “I’m surprised they don’t have rules about when to pee.” There is a detention center on campus where students are punished for ridiculous minor violations of the rules. Old Windsor is like a glorified high school with its pretensions of in loco parentis towards its students.


As for student activism Lansky hilariously depicts the “Great Shower Curtain Protest” a drive to get the college to replace moldy curtains in the dorm shower and the petition by Kenya to get the mall-like name of the student service office “One Stop Shopping” changed because it suggests a mall location. Lansky’s eye for the inanities of student, faculty and administrative life at a college is acute.

Pretentious President Prime of the college is lampooned and the nefarious machinations of the dean are depicted. Professor Snyder’s death at the hands of a deranged student described by Jenny is a shocking but logical outcome of the radical failings of the college. Jenny’s romp through college catches the spirit of a young woman trying to find herself in her journey through the life of the mind, interacting with her professors, Jill the librarian, who mentors her in the ways of the world, and her friends who provide her with emotional support and insights.

The second part of the novel, Bill of Sale, is a memoir found among the posthumous papers of Professor Snyder. It depicts the forced sale of his parent’s family farm to greedy capitalistic real estate developers for an industrial park which was never built and the havoc it wreaked on his family. His parents drank and fought and slogged through a series of dead end jobs. Air raid drills and family Sunday drives and his relationship with his sister are described. Deaths and lost lives are shown in this memoir of people, who have no chance to achieve success in the shadows of a dark landscape dominated by capitalism. This memoir fragment ends with a beautiful passage:

When I was a child, I wondered how old I would be when I got to the year 2000, which has come and gone. I made it into the 21st century. I made it into the second Great Depression. Now a new generation will take over. It is in books that we become immortal. I am alive now, but when you read this book I will be dead. I can feel it in my bones, which will soon be charred and scattered across the universe.

The Cutting Edge by David Lansky reflects the decline of our society and the loss of its moral compass. Greed, corruption, and ruthlessness permeate our institutions from colleges to corporate workplaces. It is a dog eat dog world where people repress their feelings and do not truly connect with anyone but scheme to defraud or get over on others. With humor, irony and heartfelt description The Cutting Edge depicts our contemporary world in an unsparing light. It is well worth reading.