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FICTION : THE SOCRATIC METHOD by Michael Levin (Simon & Schuster: $17.95; 283 pp.).

January 03, 1988|Mara Braverman

"The Socratic Method" is like law school: They both start off interesting, then quickly bog down into a morass of pages one has no choice but to slog through in order to get to the prize at the end.

The prize here is finding out how Rebecca Shepard manages to become the first tenured female professor at the fictional McKinley Law School. Most of McKinley's faculty want to maintain their all-male club. In addition, they vehemently oppose Shepard's attacks on the traditional methods of teaching law, including use of the Socratic method of the title.

Woven in with this story are myriad subplots about Shepard, the male faculty members, the law students and others. It is in the weaving together of these subplots with the main story that Levin is at his best.

What Levin is far less skillful at is character development and exposition. A better writer would sum up in a paragraph what Levin takes several pages to describe. Like the law professors he is parodying, Levin, a graduate of Columbia Law School, is afraid the reader will misunderstand if he doesn't explain every nuance of a situation.

The main characters are never developed enough to be more than stereotypes. Rebecca Shepard is so virtuous, her main failing is that she doesn't tell people when she's feeling irritated with them. Similarly, the professor who terrorizes students in class has so few redeeming qualities that the best that can be said about him is that he's loyal to the law school. The characters are only props Levin manipulates to further the plot or use as mouthpieces for his ideas about legal education.

Like all pompous institutions, law school deserves a good satire. If Levin were to take out the grandstanding and make his characters into real people, he might have the makings of that book.

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