JANUARY 31, 2020
Common sense is not so common.
― Voltaire, A Pocket Philosophical Dictionary
MOVE OVER LOLITA … there’s a new nymphet in town, and her name is Sophia. Actually, Aris Janigian’s protagonist in his satirical Waiting for Sophia at Shutters on the Beach is neither underage nor morally compromised like Nabokov’s famous anti-heroine. Instead, she’s a tough and brilliant grad student who escapes her native Poland after being involved in a sex scandal that threatens to destroy her father’s political career. Janigian’s story begins as the narrator, an unnamed college professor, awaits Sophia at the swanky Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica. He serves as a mentor to Sophia, whose provocative cross-disciplinary dissertation has somehow managed to upset his colleagues in half a dozen of the university’s departments. Mysteriously Sophia also enjoys a champagne-and-caviar lifestyle that bewilders the professor, who can’t understand where all her cash comes from nor begin to fathom the particularly racy side venture that fuels Sophia’s love of luxury.
Over the next 197 compact pages, the professor recounts his attraction for Sophia while decrying the irrational political correctness of modern American academia, as well as his own tenuous position within it. He also sits on a committee asked to adjudicate a case of campus rape while he is concurrently — and ironically — accused of unwanted sexual contact. All told, he’s in quite a pretty pickle, but his thoughts remain fixated on his alluring and intellectually gifted charge, whom he hopes to eventually bed. It’s a lot of story to cram into such a short novel, but Janigian’s riveting tale unfolds in deliriously delicious fashion.
The writing itself is cinematic in form — transitions are quick and seamless — and flows in one extended narrative. Colorful imagery and scenes leap out at the reader fully realized. Janigian’s opening salvo is a good exemplar of the novel as a whole:
One of a professor’s perennial perks used to be getting to seduce or gladly accept the advances of your prettiest, and in Sophia’s case, most intelligent students, but now the environment was so hostile to any carnal encounter not sanctioned by the new priestesses[.] […] [O]ne was forced to consider whether even shagging a thirty-three year-old alum was taboo, or rather near-alum, as Sophia had disappeared from school, leaving her dissertation — Decadence and Farce from Warhol to Koons — unfinished …
It’s a sardonic statement, but one that likely echoes the private sentiments of many real-world professors and students today.
Waiting for Sophia, Janigian’s fifth novel, is also to my mind his finest to date. The author’s tender and powerful 2003 debut novel, Bloodvine, and its successor, Riverbig (2009), delved into the author’s Fresno childhood and chronicled the demons of his Armenian past, before he turned his sights on Los Angeles in This Angelic Land (2012), a harrowing look at the failed American Dream set amid the 1992 L.A. Riots. Janigian’s ironic knife cuts to the bone as do few others. This was evinced in Waiting for Lipchitz at Chateau Marmont (2015), where he takes on Tinseltown decadence and hypocrisy with Nathanael West–like intensity, as the novel’s narrator awaits that most slippery of characters — the Hollywood agent. Waiting for Sophia is the second installment in Janigian’s “Waiting” trilogy, the author having recently stated in an interview that the third installment, Waiting for Raffi at the Jonathan Club, about a heroin-pushing refugee artist, is soon to follow.
Narrated as an inner monologue, Waiting for Sophia reads at a leisurely, conversational pace so that the reader feels he is sitting next to the professor as he recounts his loves and travails in academia. Here is Janigian at his best, describing one department’s etymologically inventive petition banning pornography on campus:
We must all stand up and call pornography for what it is: Pornotution. Scopophiliacal sadism, female hyper-objectification. We call on campus administrators to immediately firewall against all pornotution web content, and censure those who still secure means to access it …
As in previous novels, Janigian takes no prisoners and all are fair game: students, fellow professors and academics, everyday people. In fact, the whole liberal-leftist-gender fluid cabal finds itself in the crosshairs of Janigian’s often hilarious satire. It’s not hard to find where Janigian has mined his material given the endless debates these past years over the gendering of restrooms and debatable concepts such as micro-aggressions and safe spaces. Even the most liberal leftist like myself begins to wonder after a while where some of this overly sensitized absurdity will end. The American society that the professor describes is one in which well-meaning attempts to address issues such as racial and gender inequality have often set good sense on its head. You have to give Janigian’s narrator some credit, as he spends much of his class time exasperated at his inability to successfully maintain the simplest Socratic principle for classroom debate. That is of course until in response to a sexual harassment survey the professor has brought up for discussion, the ultimate, unanswerable rebuke arrives from his student Samantha: “I’m not sure how, as a man, you’re qualified to read this study?” Indeed.
One might reasonably argue that some of Janigian’s characters fall into outright parody at times, were it not for the fact that they are ultimately quite nuanced and complex. The professor may find today’s academy absurd, but he is also disturbed by his inability to navigate it more adeptly: Why can’t he bring himself to apologize for violating an obvious academic taboo? Why does he admonish his students and even taunt them when, he concedes, they simply don’t know any better? He’s a wise guy in the extreme, but he can’t help himself:
Okay perhaps I voiced an off a word or two for our last hire, a lesbian/poet/activist scholar whose research interests were whales, queers, and Honduran refugees, a trifecta of the aggrieved, but, what with her poems that included uncanny simulations of a humpback’s harrowing songs, I was hardly the only one among us who had reached the breaking point.
The professor, one learns, is in fact self-loathing, a result of his inability to either acquiesce to or master the increasingly complex and bureaucratic identity politics that now rule academic life. This insecurity extends to his relationship with his muse Sophia:
Though she adored me and I adored her, little did she know how little I adored myself. If I drew close to her, I was afraid she’d see the sickalacrum [sic] I too had become, the entire self-satisfied gimmickry and increasing maliciousness of the so-called academic class I was a willing member of.
His postprandial musings one night extend to an imagined discussion that he might have with university officials were he to finally sleep with Sophia:
“She’s a grown woman! With a grown woman’s appetite, I might add. There is nothing illegal going on here, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“What is illegal and what’s unacceptable are two different things. We should think we’ve made this point clear by now. Haven’t we made clear the institutional power differential at work here? Isn’t it obvious your implicit leverage over her?”
In fact, for the professor, the power differential is one of the very foundations for such relationships, like the fifth-century BC Greek philosophers who regularly took their young male students as lovers. Janigian’s professor presents in turns an angry, bewildered, and condescending response to the sometimes fascistic impulses of identity politics and political correctness at hand. (I would simply point out in passing that as crazy and illogical as some of these views may seem, they remain far less offensive than the outright racism and class oppression practiced by much of the right.)
Seen within the context of #MeToo, Waiting for Sophia challenges current views about physical and power relations between the sexes. As evident in the preceding quote, the professor finds the rhetoric and politics surrounding “mutual consent” to have sabotaged much of the charm and natural beauty of the human dating/mating process. It’s a view that’s been advocated elsewhere, particularly across the Atlantic where everyday Europeans often deride this particular strand of American sexual puritanism. In 2018, the French actress Catherine Deneuve famously responded to #MeToo by saying that while rape was of course wrong, one could not — or should not — police sexual attraction and ask heterosexual men to stop flirting with and seducing women. As the professor muses:
“Above and beyond anything else, so the current regime exhorts, one must resist being seduced because the moment one is seduced one has conceded power to the seducer. They imagine there is nothing more debasing and horrifying when in fact, there is nothing more exhilarating and even edifying than losing one’s farcical and imagined freedom, especially to one whose diabolical powers one barely fathoms.”
It’s a view that Sophia herself wholeheartedly endorses. She both understands her power as a woman yet somehow fears it, though she remains unapologetic in her beliefs. Take the following self-explanatory exchange between Sophia and a student in a literature seminar:
“Women’s advantage is everywhere in America and growing every year. And probably when the patriarchy did exist it was men’s demand, you might call it revenge, over women for the psychic burden of having to settle down. What a disaster civilization is for men, especially monogamy.”
“Say what?” Malika said.
“Men are wanderers and adventurers by nature, sexual and otherwise, no? Why pretend it is not so? What violations to their nature men must endure to make it through a day. Sure … they will pause to build this and that but especially when they are young, they want to keep moving and they would keep moving…”
Later on, Sophia confronts another student, a delicate flower of a man who finds everything about whiteness and patriarchy to be a downright sin:
“War’s always about men and the SLOG: Sex, Land, Oil and Gold.”
“Shame on men? And women are all Mother Theresa? Did you have your ears plugged all the way through high school? The cliquishness and plots for revenge women have refined to an art form?”
Later in the novel, after another late-night dinner with the professor, Sophia expands on her Theory of Men:
“Let’s face it […] All men know they are ultimately disposable […] Even moose hunters are prohibited by law to kill cows and calves, while it is open season on bulls, especially when they are rutting.”
“Mother tongue, mother culture, mother earth. Next to all that is your poor Father Time, which all men feel is running out on them.”
Sophia is certainly not the first to come up with a simple biological explanation for the differences between the sexes, but hers is perhaps one of its cleverest iterations. To make things even more interesting, an unexpected facet of Sophia’s personality and life slowly emerges: she is deeply religious, and it is in church, within the context of her Catholicism, that she apprehends something like grace and the earthly presence of Good and Evil:
“[Y]ou acknowledge God and His grace, the force holding the universe together, the mysterious force that keeps humans from falling apart[.] […] Of course when it all starts to fall apart, we usually turn to God crying for help. We don’t say, when disaster strikes, ‘God give us more laws,’ or ‘better laws.’ No, we say, ‘God show me your mercy and grace.’”
Janigian’s incorporation of faith here is of course an attack on another shibboleth of the academic left. As far as I know, the author himself is not particularly religious, but in Waiting for Sophia he points toward an important if uneasy truth, namely that while religion (faith, call it what you will) has perhaps justifiably been excluded from the practices of modern academic life, nothing much has come to take its place. The separation of faith and all that it entails (forgiveness, grace) from one’s personal and educational formation — or what the Germans term Bildung — has perhaps helped to grow the void that some student activists are trying to fill with often virulent cultural attacks on gender, whiteness, and the patriarchy.
If there is a criticism to be leveled at Waiting for Sophia, it’s simply that one might have appreciated a more nuanced portrayal of the leftist positions that actually exist in academia and elsewhere. Not all feminists and leftists are raving bleeding hearts. Most are in fact rather open-minded and they don’t hold monolithic positions on topics such as power structures, women’s rights, or gender relations. It’s perhaps the chasm that now exists between two sides — left and right, Democrat and Republican — screaming past one another that is so disturbing. It’s the same one that we now witness during the Trump impeachment hearings and our everyday politics. Dialogue and learned discourse have seemingly dissolved in the acid of contemporary diatribe.
One gets the sense that many of the academics taking part in the farce that Janigian describes understand somewhere that something has gone terribly wrong. Yet they are unable or unwilling — and sometimes afraid — to take the necessary steps to address the conflicts at hand. At times, the entire atmosphere takes on Kafkaesque hues, as when the professor is brought into the academic dean’s office to discuss his “situation” at the university. All stare at each other and employ a vocabulary so dishonestly inflected that it devolves into absurdity, where there’s no walking away better off. In both real life and in fiction, few have had the temerity to take on the establishment with Janigian’s candor and honesty — one senses that while his characters are sometimes careening madly toward the seventh circle of Hell, the author himself is having a rather ribald time of it. It’s a breath of well-needed fresh air from one of our most fearless novelists. Janigian’s arguments in the end come neither from the right nor the left. Rather they are an appeal to reason and good sense — something we desperately need as the 21st century continues to unravel.
Christopher Atamian is a New York–based writer, producer, and director who has been awarded two Tölölyan Literary Prizes. Christopher is currently finishing a novel, Manhattan Boy, and working on several film and theatrical projects.