A tale of two professors
As part of an exchange programme, Britain’s Rummidge University swops literature professors each year with Euphoria State in California. Humble Rummidge University–set in the darkest heart of the Midlands sends lowly Phillip Swallow to glorious, golden California, and Euphoria State sends Morris Zapp to England. Both professors leave their wives and families behind–Swallow is chomping at the bit for the freedom that beckons, and Zapp is hoping that his second wife won’t go through with a threatened divorce.
Zapp and Swallow are opposites, but they are both unpleasant and unappealing in different ways. Swallow loves literature–in all its forms, but his “undiscriminating enthusiasm” has resulted in an inability to settle on a period or a writer. He is, however, considered an expert in the drafting of examination questions, and he seriously considers compiling a book of his “best-ever” questions. In Swallow’s mind, this book of questions is destined to become a significant work of philosophy. Zapp, the Californian, is a Jane Austen scholar (his children are named Elizabeth and Darcy), and he suffers from recurring nightmares in which placard-carrying students demonstrate against studying Jane Austen. Unlike Swallow, Zapp doesn’t believe in the power of questions and declares that it is the “answers that separated the men from the boys.” While Zapp possessed stunning credentials years ago, the truth is that he hasn’t published anything in years. His last attempted project was to produce a mammoth work on Jane Austen in the hope that this will put “a definitive stop to the production of any further garbage on the subject.” But Zapp is mired down in Sense and Sensibility, and with his wife threatening to divorce him, Zapp accepts the trip to England to buy some time.
Swallow takes to the California lifestyle with gusto. He begins dressing more casually, and within days he’s visiting strip clubs and joining in enthusiastically with the student activists on campus. In one hilarious episode, Swallow attends a departmental function, and asks that everyone play a game of “Humiliation.” The object of the game is to prove that you are the least well-read person in the room. As we all know, this game is the antithesis of the typical English major’s behaviour. The dilemma for the players is whether or not to reveal their superior knowledge and lose, or win by exposing and promoting their ignorance in a room full of PhDs.
Zapp finds lodging with an eccentric Irish doctor who can’t stop salivating over his new lodger’s television. At Euphoria State, Zapp is used to being the darling of the English Department, and it takes him some time to adjust to the new social conventions at Rummidge. While trying to adjust to the English climate, Zapp also undergoes a moral transformation and actually commits an unselfish act or two. Rather uncannily, Zapp and Swallow both become embroiled in some startlingly similar situations, and it soon becomes apparent that the professors did more than just exchange jobs!
About halfway through the novel, the author switches to the epistolary form. This later changes to various reprints of newspaper articles. Then it’s back to standard novel form before the ending, and the ending is written in the form of a play or script. The novel is amusing from beginning to end–although I do have to say that the ending was a bit of a disappointment. But, that said, the book really gave me a lot of laughs and a great deal to think about. If you enjoy novels with an academic setting, then you will enjoy Changing Places.