I am fascinated by student-teacher relationships in fiction the way some people are by murder. I would never, but. But what’s that dysfunctional bit of someone that makes them think this action is in any way good, or logical, or acceptable, or even desirable? What are the darkest parts of the human heart that justify the unjustifiable?
I suspect part of this fascination comes from my own experience: being a teacher in adult ed circles in my twenties, while at the same time dipping in and out of education myself. Between ages eighteen and twenty-eight I spent seven years as a student. I sat in masters’ seminars in both my mid- and late-twenties considering how I would have taught the same material – not necessarily as a critique, more as a hypothetical exercise. I twitch when I read fictional accounts of unthinking adoration of one’s lecturers; it feels impossible, somehow. (Tessa Hadley’s “The Surrogate”, a short story I read – I remember this vividly – immediately after leaving an undergraduate lecture given by a lecturer I was smitten with, purchased in Hodges Figgis with my heart still pounding, is a stunning dismantling of the myth.)
As a human who lives in the world, it is always difficult to read accounts of these relationships without raging at the power imbalance, and so Corinne Sullivan’s debut novel Indecent offers up a very rare opportunity: to rage at multiple power imbalances. Imogene Abney, our heroine (ish), is in her early 20s and has always had a yearning for the privileges conferred upon those who attend private schools, whether or not that privilege existed before or not. Even scholarship students are not immune to the power that a particular school’s name has, the doors it will open for them. For Imogene – most definitely not privileged – this is enchanting. It’s the reason she’s taken up a year-long position as a teaching assistant, a mentee in a program at an established and elite private boarding school for boys.
Unlike the borderline-sociopathic narrator of Alissa Nutting’s Tampa, Imogene is not a predator deliberately seeking out boys young enough to appeal (and young enough not to question). She is instead fairly reclusive, the kind of woman almost-dissolved by her “cool” housemate’s attempt to befriend her and the sort who prefers “tedium” to “posturing and forcing conversation. I was at my most comfortable, it seemed, when I was alone.” She is, despite being an alleged adult, still deeply adolescent –as indeed are so many of us now, in this post-recession world. At 22 and a college graduate, she is part-trainee, part-proper-employee. Imogene does not feel entirely comfortable performing the ‘teacher’ role, understanding that she occupies a liminal space; the boys take advantage of this in various ways.
It’s within this context that a sexual relationship begins between Imogene and senior student Kip, a problem drinker whose interest in Imogene is largely limited to when he’s hammered and she can offer sex in an arena where women are few and far between. This wealthy boy in his late teens has seen more of the world than Imogene has, and as such offers up a nuanced portrayal of the young man being abused by an older woman – a situation that the media is often quick to ignore in favour of the gender-swapped reverse, but which certainly deserves attention.
Is Imogene in the wrong? Absolutely. But she is also the victim of other societal wrongs: the way in which economic privilege makes it so much easier for certain people to ‘progress’ in society. The way in which women are seen as passive and men as aggressive. The way in which female sexuality is embarrassing while male sexuality is normalized. And, perhaps, most tellingly, the way in which obsession, in a female context, is viewed as normal rather than as indicative of an underlying issue.
Because Imogene is, at heart, depressed, and anxious, and sad. She realizes at the book’s end that maybe it was never about the boy – and it wasn’t. She is a young woman still struggling with the impact of adolescent cruelty – and honestly, in one’s early twenties (and well into life), it’s still an issue for many people – and trying, desperately, to be accepted.
Indecent offers up a razor-sharp account of what happens when the gap between ‘student’ and ‘teacher’, ‘adolescent’ and ‘adult’ dissolves – a timely reminder that many of us are dealing with the latter, at least, on a daily basis. Imogene is both a grown-up and still growing up, hovering in a space that many of her real-life contemporaries will recognise. That she messes up is something we take for granted; that we relate to her (however cringe-inducingly at certain points) is a testimony to the author’s skill.