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What We’re Reading: The Receptionist and Other Tales

2016 May 19
by Josh Johnson

What We're Reading
The ReceptionistThe Receptionist and Other Tales by Lesley Wheeler (Aqueduct Press, 2012)

Ursula Le Guin offers praise for what she calls Lesley Wheeler’s “brief novel of misbehavior in academia” by considering the book’s reclamation of narrative poetry and fantastic fiction. And that nicely sets the stage for some of what Wheeler is trying to accomplish in The Receptionist and Other Tales. The book is broken up into two parts: The Receptionist is a series of poems following Edna, a receptionist in the English department at the local university. Perhaps because of the fantasy books she reads to her two children, or perhaps because of her own (and the audience’s own) love of those classic speculative stories, Edna sees herself constantly as a hero fighting or running from evil in all forms, the most persistent being the dark, dangerous Dean, called the “wolf in wool” and known for his sexual harassment of faculty. Along with the Dean, we have the University Counsel, described beautifully in a section titled “Hill-Top Ambush:

University Counsel loomed there, a pair

of lawyers, Blackberrys shining brighter than

the hide on their wings. This is the part where


the Riders attack you from their avian

steeds. The damned Voice tolled again in Edna’s

ear, and she looked up in surprise. A skin


of clouds was forming over faint stars,

a crescent moon. They want to steal your voice,

it warned. Not my amulet? Edna was


exasperated. Not my spell-book? Your choice.

Aesthetically, this section is beautifully put together: the rough terza rima gives the poem momentum and cohesion, and the images of these University Counsel, at once slick lawyers slinging Blackberrys and evil warriors glinting sharply astride their evil avian steeds, fill the scheme with rich substance. For me, moments like these are dangerous in that they play close, close, close to the line between rich characterization and overly easy stereotype. The Receptionist is, in part, a tale of academia, but it seems to have a curious and unsure relationship with its audience, and so there are moments where Wheeler relies on the low-hanging fruit of stereotypical academic life: a poet struggling to publish work no one wants to read, a dutiful medievalist working hard, a dramatic drama professor “billowing in.” And of course, the lawyers like hungry scavengers, shiny and dangerous. There is value in these representations: accessibility, trope reversal, play. But there is danger, too, of course, and I’m left wondering if that line is not, at times, crossed.

This section, too, showcases one of the really curious and cool things about The Receptionist: The Voice. Edna regularly communicates with a voice that at times seems to be in her head or on her shoulder, part sub-conscious and part demon/angel whispering in her ear. The Voice has a keen interest in Edna seeing her life, the struggles and little victories, as part of a grand narrative, as Frodo—the small, meek hero—overcoming great obstacles and triumphing despite it all. The Voice prods Edna into these models because for her, the quiet receptionist who sees all but has seemingly little power to do anything, these stories offer a framework for just action, for the honorable path. The inclusion of fantasy as a genre (and all the implications of that: form, content, characterization) suddenly makes sense with The Voice: the fantastic is at once a necessary model of thought and impetus for action, but it is also in need of critique and consideration.

In the midst of all the serious considerations in The Receptionist (sexual harassment, dangerous and gendered power dynamics in academia), Wheeler manages to have a ton of fun, and this is perhaps the best reason to recommend the book. The sense of play, whether linguistic, aesthetic, or generic, is always present, and reading this poetic narrative is at its core an act of joy. There are conceptual and critical wrinkles that pop up from time to time in the text, but the run-away train of Wheeler’s ecstatic play is always there to smooth them over, to keep the pages turning, to keep Edna moving on toward her fateful and powerful end.

The last chunk of the book is full of the Other Tales: a hodgepodge mix of fantastical poetry concerning tales we all know an love: Rumpelstiltskin, Peter Pan, and, of course, Zombie Thanksgiving. My favorite, though, is a poem written from the White Witch’s perspective (she of Narnia fame), in which she tells us,

I once was cold and ran with wolves, I confess,

but now I desire a legacy. Torture

is a fading art. My golden foe confuses

you. Learn that he is the misanthropic

metaphor, not I. Study my biopic.

After the interconnected intensity of The Receptionist, Wheeler’s Other Tales are a delightful dessert course: light, playful, and the perfect ending to a fun, challenging book.

What playful books have you been reading lately?

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