Friday, January 9, 2015

Passions Pursued: M.P. Fedunkiw's A Degree of Futility

(Full disclosure: I am acquainted with Marianne Fedunkiw slightly as she is the President of the Toronto Arts and Letters Club, of which I am a member.) 

Write what you know has been a guiding principle in M.P. (Marianne) Fedunkiw impressive fictional debut, A Degree of Futility (FriesenPress, 2014), a novel about three friends, Lily, the narrator, Greg and Simon, who have difficulty either in completing a PhD or finding full-time work in their chosen field. This topic has received considerable attention in the press, on the CBC’s, The Current and TVO’s, The Agenda. But to my knowledge, A Degree is the first to explore these issues in a fictional format. 

Fedunkiw obtained her PhD in 2000 in medical history and has taught courses at three Toronto-area universities for more than fifteen years. Like so many other PhD graduates, she has been an underemployed sessional instructor, going from contract to contract, with little chance of entering the tenure stream inside the academy. Both in the novel and in public statements, Fedunkiw has stated the importance of having a plan B if a tenured position does not materialize, and she has taken her own advice. It helped that Fedunkiw had a journalism degree that enabled her to work at The Globe and Mail among other publications, and she was also a member of the team that started The Discovery Channel in Canada during the 1990s. She has international research experience and runs MF Strategic Communications, a consulting firm that specializes in communications for the university, research and medical sectors. Moreover, she has written plays and is now working on another novel.

This wealth of experience plays to the strengths and potential pitfalls inherent in A Degree. Fedunkiw’s ability to develop character with insight and warmth is perhaps her greatest asset. The strongest element in the novel is the bond of friendship that develops among the three central players who genuinely care for each other during some difficult patches in their lives. One brief example: when Simon is physically and violently assaulted, Greg flies from Toronto to Oxford to provide support to Lily and Simon. That Fedunkiw is a dramatist – for example, her play The Influence of Beauty, set in Serbia and Italy from 1915 to 1917, is based upon the war diaries of Dr. Dorothea Clara Maude (1879-1959) who left her Oxford medical practice to serve as a volunteer field surgeon/doctor with the Serbian army during World War I – has contributed to her ability to write sharp, smart dialogue. Simon in particular has a gift for dispensing sparkling wit that, along with his flamboyance, reminded me of Oscar Wilde. When I first heard that A Degree was about three friends, I was pleasantly surprised that the triage consisted of one woman and two men. I wondered how narrative intensity would be maintained without sexual tensions arising; they do occur and Fedunkiw portrays the emotional and thorny entanglements with great aplomb. As indicated above, Fedunkiw has maintained that everyone in the precarious professional situation that confronts her three protagonists must have an alternative plan if their academic aspirations are not fulfilled. Two of the characters do have such a plan, as well as the flexibility when life circumstances are altered that require further adaptability, while the third is not willing to consider anything other than an academic career, and the consequences are tragic. Fedunkiw addresses this material with a sensitivity that renders these pages the most moving part of the novel.

author M.P. Fedunkiw.

Alongside its virtues, I felt there are certain potential problems with A Degree. At times, the novel threatens to veer into an agitprop account about the plight of the newly minted PhD. Since 2000 the job market is the worst it has ever been even though the problem of obtaining tenure, especially in the humanities, has ebbed and flowed since 1980. Regardless, the issue lends itself to a powerful expository essay. Its integration into a novel, a large challenge for any writer, offers a contribution to a larger discussion without overwhelming the narrative. Fortunately, the intense friendship among Lilly, Greg and Simon, and Fedunkiw’s skill in allowing the reader to suss out important insights about her characters before she reveals them, allows literature to trump polemics. As with many first-time novelists – D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, is just one of countless examples – there are many similarities between the central character and her creator. I sometimes wondered whether I was reading a quasi-memoir. Both received their PhDs in medical history, both did a post-doctoral at Oxford, both have worked at a research organization and they even share a passion for playing hockey. Only the author knows whether the personal dimension of her characters is drawn from her life experience or from her imagination. As I have already suggested, Lily’s relationships with the two men and her love life, which I have not explored, constitute the most vital parts of the book.

The most important insight I derived from A Degree is that individuals who are motivated to engage in graduate work should do so primarily because they have an intense passion about a subject and that they have burning questions that they feel need to be explored. Currently, there is no guarantee – was there ever? – that the necessary perseverance and putting one’s life on hold for years will result in becoming a tenured academic. Fedunkiw’s academic, literary and dramatic experiences infuse this highly readable and pleasurable book and would interest anyone who has a passion they wish to pursue.

(photo by Keith Penner)
Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. His website is

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