Barr, Marleen S. Oy! Pioneer! Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.

 

D. Jeannine Cole, University of Wisconsin-Madison, WI USA

 

Marleen S. Barr’s Oy! Pioneer is a witty and fresh take on academia, feminism, dating, and all things in between. Although Barr has written several volumes on theory and analyzing science fiction, this is her first foray into the world of writing novels. The initial dedication “for my husband, Maurice--who provides the story’s real happy ending,” foreshadows that many of the book’s adventures and characters are based on Barr’s actual experiences. Like the author, protagonist Sondra Lear is a post-modernist, feminist, science-fiction critic, but the fluid, quick-paced satire quickly escapes the confines of a mere autobiography. Indeed, Barr fuses science-fiction, fantasy, ethnic comedy, and several other traditional genres in this pioneering work that puts her theories from Genre Fission: A New Discourse Practice for Cultural Studies (University of Iowa Press, 2000) into practice. Her uniquely blended style defies academics’ tendency to disparage specific genres of literature, and it also puts this groundbreaking novel in a genus all its own.

In episodic chapters that read like diary entries, Barr draws the reader into a vortex of Lear’s personal and professional struggles. Throughout the novel, Lear constantly skirmishes with her nagging Jewish mother, Herbert. Leaving her parents’ sanitized, plastic-wrapped “condom-inium” halfway across the world does not free Lear from disappointing her mother, and she finally dodges the constant phone calls by pretending to be a subject in a government study on how Fulbright scholars cope without parental contact. Her other relationships also seemed destined for disappointment, especially when she discovers that her two best girlfriends from home have become lovers and run off together. Sexual relationships fare no better: after one sexploit, she has to wield her bladder infection medicine as her passport out of Israel when a conscientious El-Al security agent questions her ulterior motives in visiting Israel. “Professionalism is so much easier than passion,” Lear comments (72).

Although professionalism may be easier, Lear quickly acknowledges that it is not by any means easy. She struggles against the “good old boy” academia in the United States and, to a slightly lesser extent, abroad. Although she leaves Bubba Bob, Bob Bob, Earl Bob, and Jed Bob at Blackhole State University, Lear soon discovers that the administrators and faculty at her German university share some of the same androcentric tendencies. It takes persistence, scheming, and frequent escapes to international conferences to survive her misogynistic colleagues and rioting students, but she pulls through with style. The conferences bring their own complications, however, because they are not isolated academic sanctums. Lear not only has to avoid the many professional hazards and grievances, she also has to make sense of her complicated relationship experiences.

Halfway through the novel, Lear unhesitatingly transitions into a reality hybridized with fantastical elements that includes a debonair vampire scholar who romances Lear with a pair of magical red clogs, an evil colleague who melts when Lear dumps a watering pot on her head, and a tenure battle against a gender-bending horse named Ms. Ed at a southern university that actualizes every redneck stereotype possible. The administers eagerly grant the horse tenure so they do not have to give it to a non-gentile woman. Although Lear claims she became a male Episcopalian in Europe, her colleagues soon find her out and declare that “extinction is the final solution to the Jewish feminist question” (179). Unable to stay in Blackhole, Lear and Ms. Ed escape to “civilization” in New York City. Back in New York, her mother despairs that her daughter brought home a horse instead of a husband and Lear’s fairy godmother, Barbara Bush, runs out of ways to win a husband. Although she fails at the husband-hunting Olympics, Lear does finagle an expose of Blackhole on “60 Minutes,” marries her cat Norris (who becomes a man), and becomes Earth’s first interplanetary feminist Fulbright scholar.

Other writers have previously satirized academia, notably David Lodges’ Nice Town and its sequel Small World, but Barr’s embrace of mystical realism allows for a more expansive caricature. Although events take strange twists, the grounded prose makes it relatively easy for the reader to visualize and accept this new plane of existence. Barr liberally sprinkles her wry commentary, such as “twenty-three [homicide detectives] men were in the apartment--and not one proposed. This fact killed me.” At times, however, the humor sometimes seems forced, and the puns and Wizard of Oz allusions occasionally seem to jumble together without much purpose. It can also be difficult to empathize with a husband-hunting feminist who seems eager to sleep with any man regardless of whether he is a stranger, single, married, or in a committed same-sex relationship. Although her behavior may deter some readers, the protagonist’s fallibility highlights Barr’s humorous and sometimes barbed commentary on academic life.

 

Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal Spring 2008 Volume 5 Number 2

ISSN 1209-9392

© 2008 Women in Judaism, Inc.

 



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