The Stand-In, Book Cover, Emily M. Keeler

David Helwig lays down some hilarious moments in The Stand-In. And some painful ones, too. The novella takes the rambling form of an under prepared three part humanities lecture, and while there is no cohesive lesson to be taken away from the time spent in this class room, there are some really great questions, and a hearty helping of well crafted lines and off the cuff aphorisms.

The premise is that a sort of local intellectual rock star professor–think Jeff Daniel’s in the Squid and the Whale, but Canadian– dies suddenly, naked on the floor of a hotel room, and is therefore unable to lecture for an important series at an unnamed but fairly prestigious Canadian University. I think it’s Queens.  Any way, a stand-in is flown in, a retired former colleague  of the recently deceased, and the lectures that he delivers fill in the back story of their working lives and offers a cold eulogy for both the original lecturer and the ways of old guard academics.

The lecture series describes the way that things change, how tastes and sensibilities move through time, the way that the wilderness of youth can never quite coalesce into age. There’s a lot of off hand references to what we imagine is a bygone era, specifically before Women’s studies, so-called political correctness, and the rise of third wave feminism. The lecturer describes the days when bearded male professors would unabashedly pursue the young women in their classes. He embarrasses women in the audience, telling a few that he suspects are lesbians that he still wants to admire their shaved heads, rendering them sexual objects even as he acknowledges that they specifically don’t want to be objectified by him.

There’s a disturbing scene where he describes seeing his wife naked on the floor before a full length mirror, pencil poised, trying to draw herself. She looks up at him, tells him that she can’t even see herself, and he says that it doesn’t matter because he can see her. This is embedded in a larger narrative of what a mirror is, how a mirror sees without a mind, how a mirror offers an ‘authour’s eye view.’ The lecturer doesn’t see the irony, the sexism, in denying that his wife craves authourship over her own body, but Helwig ingeniously lets you come to your own ideas about what’s really going on.

In the way he chose to set up this story, and in its content, too, Helwig is playing with the idea of authority, of the authour, of knowledge and pedagogy. Our narrator is at times pathetic, embittered, and almost unforgivably one of the old boys. But he’s also got a lot of things to say that are worth listening to, you can’t write off what he knows or even the ways he knows it, if sometimes you pity him and sometimes you get mad. In this way, the book is also about history, and the ways we relate to culture as it’s handed down, especially the ugly stuff.