Ian McGuire’s Incredible Bodies is a campus novel, and true the genre also therefore a comedy of academic manners–or their lack. In the spirit of Lucky Jim, the protagonist Morris Gutman is a insecure and harried lecturer (assistant professor) near the bottom of the totem pole in an English department at a university located in a drab provincial British town. He labors without success on the work of a marginal writer, and lives in fear of his colleagues, his students, and his family alike who in turn collectively regard him with a mixture of disdain and (worse still) pity.
By one of those strange coincidences, however, that drive comic novels, Gutman finds himself accidentally dispatching one of his tormentors, a horribly over-confident and over-articulate graduate student by the name of Dirck van Camper, and subsequently presents an essay of van Camper’s, entitled “Total Mindfuck: A Study in Ethics and Embodiment,” as his own. Gutman’s luck starts to change.
Now fêted by all and sundry, not least his over-theoretical and over-sexed colleague Zoe Cable, Gutman finds himself at the forefront of the burgeoning discipline of Body Studies, and enjoying all the perks of a successful academic life: conferences in Los Angeles, approbation from the Dean, a book contract, and co-directorship of a “Research Hub.” Naturally, such an idyll can only last so long. Gutman finds that his fall from grace is as abrupt as his meteoric rise. Moreover, he plunges far further than he had previously ascended: divorce, alcoholism, jail.
In the end, however, things start looking up again for Gutman. A series of further coincidences enable him to seek his revenge on those who have brought him low: directorship of the Hub is once more on the cards. But an encounter with a long-lost acquaintance who had chosen not to go on to academia from his PhD puts him right: the moral of the story turns out to a refusal of the entire game of “outsmarting other people, being clever, cleverer, cleverest” and accepting rather a “life of cheerful underachievement” (366).
For all the satire, then, (and McGuire’s novel skewers academic fashion more effectively than many others in the genre) Incredible Bodies is ultimately shaped by something more like compassion. It revolves around an appreciation for what is under-appreciated, perhaps precisely because it is under-appreciated. Here, for instance, is Gutman’s wife’s reflection on her relationship with this consummate loser:
Her love for Morris was still there, she realised. It was like an outfit hanging in her wardrobe which she didn’t wear anymore, but couldn’t throw away. Every now and then, when she was looking for something else, getting ready for her day, she would notice it again. Now as he lay there, silent, perfect [. . .] she thought it possible she could try it on again, it might suit her. She took a blanket from the rocking chair and laid it over Morris so just his head was showing. He smelt of something, of what? Of Morris. She groaned at this evidence of his absoluteness. (371-72)
Finally, this novel is less notable for the comedy (though it is certainly funny) than in fact for its unexpected affirmation of a form of embodiment (habits, affection, smells) that somehow perpetually escapes the fashionability of “Body Studies.”