I missed the boat with this one, I think. I wanted to enjoy it! It’s well-marketed. It’s got a non-garish cover (CRUCIAL). It has a book trailer! I am hip and modern and I am learning to accept book trailers. But The Englishman and the Butterfly never flew for me. Ryan Asmussen’s debut is a heartfelt, possibly straight-faced love paean to Academia As Was, the East Coast Ivory Tower of Old Where Old Equals 2004, the Canon Before the Dark Days When All English Departments Were Cut, the Misty Past When You Could Have an Affair with the Department Secretary Because [record scratch!] Humanities Faculties Had Secretaries.
Like my intro paragraph, however, Asmussen has a lot to learn about pacing. The book meanders up to its actual plot points like a freshman bumming a cigarette on the quad; the chapters are alternately turgid with imagery and careening along with the barest descriptors. And there’s poetry in it. The villain writes poetry (there is a dark, tortured, villainous soul lurking among the tweed weskits); Henry writes poetry. Julia, the love interest, does not, thank God, write poetry as she cycles through the men of the department in a way that ought to be empowered but just comes off unfulfilled. Look, I don’t mind poetry — sometimes I write it — but your novel is not a showcase for your free verse unless you’re reimagining Rimbaud. Keep calm and put out a chapbook. (Asmussen is, in fact, a published poet. I am not trying to ding him on style with this one. It just didn’t work for me.)
Henry, Asmussen’s protagonist and the titular Englishman, is a bit of authorial wish fulfillment, and this description of Henry could be his author’s. “His writing is lucid, compelling at times… what he lacks in definite imagination on the page, he makes up for in doggedness. His tenaciousness, his very work ethic, is profound.” Henry s a professor of enough reknown to be invited across the pond, but he is not charismatic or compelling enough for me to imagine he’s done the necessary networking to get there. He is usually astonished to be upright and breathing. When there is a love interest to be interested in, he manages to fluff his staid feathers a bit, but it all becomes shambolic and it seems to be his fault; when a dark shadow creeps with murderous intent, Henry is sedated into inaction and misses the whole thing. Maybe that was supposed to be a metaphor? This man of keen mind at the prime of his life is missing everything, good and bad? Oh. Eh. Well, he’s off to a cabin in the woods to ruminate on it all/hide from police. Police? Wait, what the hell, weren’t we just —
Yes. I know. Me too.
(Henry, ever the assiduously applied academic, does spend his time in hiding reading his colleague’s work in progress. We are treated to reams of it, which doesn’t help with that pacing thing.)
The Englishman and the Butterfly does get bonus points for inexplicable man-on-bovine brutality, realistic descriptions of Boston traffic, and death by MBTA-related squishing. It is available on Kindle for, at this writing, about a dollar more than it’s worth, and that may be worth it to you. There is no gratuitous sex or unbearable gore, and there are few typographical errors. However, I think I will sum Asmussen up in Asmussen’s own words:
“His work will never grace the fabled pages of The New Yorker. Frank Kermode will never champion it…Stanley Fish will never decode it for his adoring
students…There will be no interviews, no writer-in-residences.”
Title: The Englishman and the Butterfly
Author: Ryan Asmussen
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Publication: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
Price: $3.19 (Kindle)
Author’s Website: http://www.ryanasmussen.com/