"Do you know Avalon University? I don't suppose you do. Not many people have heard of it. Nothing notable comes out of the place." With this statment, Sean Kane invites his readers into the world of Virtual Freedom
, a novel which celebrates, even satirizes, the founding and aging of Avalon University-a thinly disguised Trent, one of the early creations of the post-secondary boom of the sixties. Kane's finale, true to the novel's Leacockian frame, is an "Envoi" that beautifully echoes the last chapter of Sunshine Sketches
: "Avalon University is only an hour and a half away, but there is the distance-the distance in time, not space-in a world made out of change. But how vivid it all is! Sometimes in the little out-of-the-way silences in the roar of the metropolis you hear it-and then the stories come, and it is all here, the person you were, the company you knew, in that little university chattering away endlessly, high against the wilderness at the top of the world."
If you accept Kane's invitation and enter the frame, however, do not expect a Leacockian series of linked sketches. What you get instead is an almost bewildering succession of episodes. Well on toward the middle of the book, a plot does begin to unravel which, even if totally unlikely, is also funny enough to keep you reading until the end.
It takes Kane a long time to get his characters underway, particularly the central one, Avalon itself. As he wrote, he obviously kept thinking of more and more incidents, none of which seemed expendable to him. And as any veteran of one of the new Ontario universities of the sixties will tell you, the experience of survival there has bred those kinds of compulsive memories in all of us. "It was a time," as he says true to the mark, "when governments smiled on education and dreams were bottomless, like the pockets of voters. Then, every politician had to have a university in his district... you couldn't keep a politician away from the university then. Now, no politician would be caught dead at one."
Avalon has a madly eccentric, manipulative Chairman of the Board of Governors, Hugh Sinclair D'Arnay. D'Arnay controls the magazine that publishes the yearly ranking of Canadian universities, the "Choosing Your College" special issue. The young idealists who pioneered its faculty are now mostly retired. They spend their days around the fountain in the University Heights Mall close by Avalon's campus: they help students with their essays; they discuss weighty matters such as their dental plan; and they call themselves the Academic Skills Centre, while considering themselves the "Real" university. Their leader, not himself retired but permanent head of the Faculty Union and also a History professor, is Ruairi MacDonald. When the occasion suits him, he is as professionally a Scot as Harry Lauder himself, and always, untiringly, a gadfly to the administration.
The focal point of the Mall is a fountain statue of the Lady of the Lake holding Excalibur high, a symbol of the fondly imagined Camelot of Avalon's early days. She is a sculpted likeness of Jennifer D'Arnay, Hugh's former wife, an early Avalon student and mother of his daughter, Jan. Jan soon becomes an Avalon student herself and the focus of the action. We meet her briefly as she and the new Dean, Cameron Galt, are flown to the campus by D'Arnay in his private jet. Galt has been appointed to both downsize the university and make it totally compatible with cyberspace and the technological world. "She's all wired up and ready to sing inside herself," gloats D'Arnay. "There isn't anything on this planet a student can't access."
Galt "had grown up to be an academic administrator... He was one of the best, because he never let a single idea of loyalty trouble him." Yet, his initial enthusiasm for his appointment is increasingly adulterated as he must navigate the rapids and shoals of Avalon. On this journey, he is well briefed by Sheena Meganetty, his veteran secretary, "a woman of disguised middle age with intense green eyes and scarlet hair ablaze with henna". Sheena is a mainstay, not only of the Dean's office, but of the whole university, because she knows everything about Avalon's administration from its beginning. In her own eccentric but efficient way, she has managed to be the mover and shaker behind much of it.
The exploits of Jan D'Arnay, her room-mate, Jilaquns of the Qayallaanas, a Pacific Indian Princess (Avalon is, of course, known throughout the land for its advanced concern for native peoples), and her mother, who is reclaimed for the salvation of Avalon from crass bureaucracy, form the novel's central plot. But the word, "plot", must be used with care for, from the outset, Kane's major thesis is that Avalon is really a construct of stories, and each story, according to the bent of its teller, is really as important a part of the structure as any other. "You see, it is the talk that matters-not so much what people say as the feeling that they are free enough to say it, so that ways of seeing and ways of being are nourished constantly by the habit of conversation..."
Virtual Freedom should become required reading for every academic in the land, but its 300-odd pages do not yet fulfill their promise. I would love to read a second edition of this novel, in which the stories were more rigorously edited and disciplined into one stream, at which we would still laugh, still savour the satiric gloss, but without suffering intermittent impatience with its sprawling largesse.
Clara Thomas is Professor of English at York University.