“This is only the beginning of the terror. Life at the University isn’t what it used to be.”
How could a back cover synopsis this intoxicating not be a winner? I picked up D. Harlan Wilson’s Primordial: An Abstraction on this alone, and was not disappointed. It’s a fiercely modern novel, an absurd, ultra-violent romp that exposes and lays waste to the Ivory Tower in an orgy of violence and absurdity, written with surgical precision. It’s terse and as dense as lead. It is deceptively simple, and an ugly delight.
The economy of Wilson’s prose is impressive. Like his protagonist, it is lean and muscular, and every word here is used for maximum effect. The angular text is further punctuated with the protagonist’s sobering existential truisms, like “Most of adult life is spent discovering the mystery of how very little you matter,” amidst the melee.
Wilson’s nameless protagonist has his doctorate revoked for pursuing “a toxic strain of theory,” and must start again from the beginning. He returns to the University to earn his degree back, but finds an isolated gulag closer to a prison or a madhouse than a place of higher learning:
Somebody attacks me at the front gate.
He reminds me of my dissertation advisor.
He is old and gray and sallow. And undeniably strong.
His bones converge into sharp angles and he looks more like an insect than an academic.
Upended on the grass, he hurls a large brick at my car and I swerve out of the way. He hurls another brick and I dodge it. He hurls one more brick and it lands on my windshield, splintering the glass like a broken equation.
I drive onto the grass and run over the old man.
The protagonist quickly asserts dominance like the biggest prisoner in the cellblock, terrorizing his roommates (mostly other professors stripped of their credentials), writers (portrayed as a gaggle of lemmings), and professors (portrayed as incompetent, unstable losers). And it is here at the University that Wilson has chosen to illustrate the death of the social contract.
Certainly, the protagonist’s regression to an animal is swift and brutal, but it mirrors the ongoing collapse at the University. The student body is more focused on shooting pornography on campus than on any other more academic pursuits, women are dehumanized and are referred to as “shawty,” and as the protagonist retreats further into himself, humanity all but disappears. As “the semester (un)folds like origami in flames,” both the protagonist and the University begin to decay. Time unfolds rapidly, semesters turn to years, then to decades, and the institution and physical buildings wither and decay as the protagonist turns into an old man.
Wilson’s University is an institution in bloody bacchanalian shambles. What’s left of the administration lives in opulence while the faculty and their families live in their offices like febrile tenement dwellers. The faculty is shellshocked and incompetent, and the administration is about as involved as an absentee slumlord. It is in this admin-faculty-student relationship that Primordial is at its funniest, an exchange between the protagonist and his witless professor over the policy on essay cover sheets is laugh out loud funny.
Smoldering at the crossroads of Franz Kafka, William Burroughs, Anthony Burgess and Henry Rollins, Primordial is Wilson’s academic id running wild. The bureaucracy, inaction, egos and faculty/admin disconnect are all amplified to the extreme and met with matching hostility. One can’t help but think many an old professor hasn’t fantasized about beating a colleague while screaming, “Fuck your book! Fuck your book! Fuck your book! Fuck your book!” after receiving yet another text to read. As someone who hated their time in academia, I think I got as much schadenfreude from reading Primordial as I suspect Wilson did in writing it.