Ray Levy’s School: Form and Selfhood

by Charlene H. Caruthers

Ray Levy’s novel School is notable for various reasons and what stands out is its experimental form. By intertwining an array of literary forms such as a dissertation manuscript influenced by Marquis de Sade, lectures on psychoanalysis, a review of a horror movie and YouTube video, and interviews, Levy provides a compelling story that tugs at the heart strings of fellow graduate students who struggle to navigate the everyday pressures found within graduate programs.  At the heart of this novel is a comedic yet candid discussion regarding a dying university system where the narrator transforms their pain into a vessel for creative selfhood. Throughout this novel, readers will find that the unnamed narrator’s voice and passion for Marques de Sade is the novel’s driving force as they explore the everyday life and culture found in graduate literary studies.

Experimental forms are often tricky to master, but when done deftly, as shown throughout Levy’s novel, they offer readers a refreshing way of understanding the novel’s characters and content. For instance, the novel opens with a confession, between an unnamed narrator and a priest. While the priest is silent throughout this confession, the narrator works through their frustrations as they attempt to understand what was expected of them during their graduate studies, how they view themselves as a woman who does not like being a woman, and a growing professional. It is due to the narrator’s apprehension of their own gender identity and the first-person drive of the novel that they refrain from self-proclaiming female pronouns. Throughout this opening passage the narrator is confessing to the priest about what took place and is clearly frustrated that they cannot get over it, or rather reveals that they are at a point in their lives in which they should have moved on from the traumatic events that occurred during their graduate studies. The narrator states:

I’m still ashamed. I’m still thinking about it, which is embarrassing. I’m a professor. I shouldn’t be obsessing over what happened in grad school. I mean, why do you think I’m talking to you? I said I wanted to interview you about your book, but what I need is something else. Closure? Or recognition? I honestly don’t know when I’ll stop thinking about whatever the hell happened to me in grad school. Hopefully one day I will? I don’t know (5).

It is through this confession with the priest that the narrator finds they cannot move on until they are enabled the space, to talk freely. What is intriguing about the narrator’s conversation with the priest is that it’s not a normal conversation, rather it is penance. The significance of this form is that the narrator is provided with the space to talk freely without fear of judgement or contempt while they confess to an authoritative figure whose job is to listen to those in need of reconciliation.

Additionally, this confession is also a commentary on the notion that all too often graduate students feel as though they’re on their own during their studies or that they feel a lack of support from their instructors, advisors, and the graduate school at large. This idea is further amplified by the narrator when they retell what their committee said after they failed their comprehensive exams the first time around stating, “Well, sometimes people with authority become hysterical when they’re ashamed. They get angry. Then they get vindictive. You guys punished me. Everybody got so upset because I seemed to be incapable of taking pleasure in the text” (11). And while the narrator is venting their frustrations, the tone presented in this passage indicates that the narrator feels slighted in knowing that the committee didn’t believe in the narrator’s ability to engage with the text and provide considerable contribution to the discourse regarding Marques de Sade and deconstruction. But, as the narrator continues, the reader learns that while there is passion for the dissertation project, the committee is more concerned that the narrator seemed to lack direction.

To continue, it’s also intriguing how Levy utilizes narrative form to engage in conversations about selfhood. The chapter entitled “Seminar XXXXXXIVX: Rats in the Maze at the School of Love” provides a more informative look into how Form and Selfhood work in tandem with another. This chapter makes use of a lecture to engage in critical discourse surrounding one’s own understanding sex and sexuality. This is important to the story and the narrator in that throughout graduate studies, most, if not all, graduate students are at a point in their lives in which they are working to solidify through their studies who they are and how they want to be perceived in their professions.

This lecture and conversation on sex and sexuality is important such that it is used as a tool to not only engage readers with how the narrator perceives themselves as a woman who does not perceive themselves as a woman or trans, it also engages in critical discourse on Derrida’s ideas on deconstruction as it relates to the narrator’s ongoing discussion of their dissertation project. This section serves as a method of instruction but also a reflection on the ways in which the narrator views themselves and how their understanding of self fits into the role of academia. While transcribing a lecture, the narrator writes, “I play the part. The Good Gay for the university. I’m also a woman. Also a lesbian. And a female professor, not a male one. Even though I told them I never was a woman. I never wanted to be a woman, but I never transitioned either, so I’m not a trans person in that particular way – that’s what Derrida means! That complexity is the meaning of deconstruction!” (38).

There’s something to be said about the ways in which writers use narrative form to engage in sociopolitical discourse, especially those topics pertaining to sex and sexuality. Marquis de Sade and Jaques Derrida, two very prominent figures throughout the text whose works also engage with topics of sex, sexuality, sex scandals, and deconstruction help address ethical and political themes that require further attention surrounding the ways in which one thinks about sex and sexuality. Ultimately, Levy provides a novel that is humorous, informative, and candid that will engage all readers.



Charlene H. Caruthers is a fiction writer from San Antonio, Texas. She obtained her MFA in Creative Writing from Texas State University and is actively working toward a Ph.D.  in creative writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Her short story “Black and Blue” appeared in the 10th ed. of Humid Literary Magazine. She has also written book reviews which can be found at Porter House Review where she previously served as the Associate Fiction Editor. Currently, Charlene serves as the Creative Nonfiction Associate Editor for Defunkt Magazine based in Houston, TX. She is currently working on a speculative fiction novel which explores concepts of race and racism, identity, monstrous and monstrosity.
Ray Levy is the author of School (University of Alabama Press/FC2), Negative Space (Spiral Editions), A Book So Red (Caketrain), and Necessary Objects (Tree Light Books). Short fictions appear or are forthcoming in ANMLYBlack Warrior ReviewDIAGRAMFenceTarpaulin SkyTerritorySPORAZINEWestern Humanities Review, and others. The recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Prose, Levy is currently Assistant Professor of English at the University of Mary Washington and a founding editor at Dreginald. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia.