Back to College
I went to a state university. It was really big, and a lot of my fellow students were adults with jobs and kids and, you know, actual lives. So there really wasn't much campus life going on. I don't regret my decision (I saved a ton of money) but I do envy people who had "real" college experiences. Hence my love of the "Campus Novel" where, more often than not, the students go to ridiculously expensive colleges in New England with really small class sizes and they spend lots and lots of time debating literary theory. So if you are just headed back to school as a teacher or student, if you long for the glory days of your super college-y college, or if you are just super envious like me, one of these books is bound to be satisfying.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
On Beauty is the story of two families: the Belseys and the Kipps. Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps are rival Rembrandt scholars at a prestigious New England university (although Howard seems to hate Rembrandt). Howard's wife Kiki is struggling to find a way to deal with her husband's recent infidelity. The Kipps are far less interesting, except that Monty Kipps wrote a Rembrandt book that was actually successful, and Monty's daughter, Victoria, has a weird thing for Howard.
What Smith is excellent at is poking at the pretensions of academics. It seems like that would be an easy thing to do, but I've read a lot of campus novels and many authors go too broad and end up mocking pretty much everything about higher learning. What Smith does is surgical. She nails the academic speak (which in itself isn't a necessarily a bad thing) and uses it to illustrate how it can alienate even bright students. There is a chapter told from the point of view of 16-year-old student prodigy Katie. Katie loves art, is excited to talk about it, and is completely baffled by Howard Belsey's 17th Century Art class. A sample cut from this lecture:
"What we're trying to ... interrogate here, is the theme of artist as autonomous individual with privileged insight into the human.... What are we signing up for when we speak of the 'beauty' of this 'light'?"
Howard has his own ideas about Rembrandt, and he's going to express them in the most inscrutable way possible, to the detriment of most of his class and in a manner that discourages a productive discussion. (The class is overtaken mostly by students who talk the most like Howard.)
And poor Katie is lost:
"And now the class escapes Katie; it streams through her toes as the sea and sand and when she stands at edge of the ocean dozily, stupidly, allows the tide to draw out and the world to pull away from her so rapidly as to make her dizzy…"
Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
Michael Chabon's second novel features one of his least likeable protagonists: creative writing professor Grady Tripp. Tripp is lost working on his second novel, which is currently 2,611 pages long with no end in sight. It's a hilarious mess. The description of the book by Hannah, one of his students, is priceless:
"Well, then it starts - I mean parts of it are still wonderful, amazing, but after a while it just starts - I don't know - it gets all spread out."......."Okay, not spread out, then, but jammed too full. Like that thing with the Indian ruin? Okay, first you have the Indians come, right, they build the thing, they die out, it falls apart, hundreds of years go by, it gets buried, in the fifties some scientist finds it and digs it out, he kills himself - all that goes on and on and on, for, like forty pages, and, I don't know - " She paused, and blinked her eyes, and wondered for a moment at the novelty of administering criticism to her teacher. "It doesn't really seem to have anything to do with your characters. I mean, it 's beautiful writing, amazingly beautiful, but … And all that about the town cemetery? All the headstones, and their inscriptions, and the bones and bodies underneath them? And the part about their different guns in the cabinet in the old house? And the genealogies of their horses? And -" She caught herself devolving into simple litany and broke off. "Grady," she said, sounding more than a little horror-struck. "You have whole chapters that go for thirty and forty pages with no characters at all!"
The rest of his life is just as messy. He is cheating on his third wife with the chancellor of his college. His editor has more or less given up on him. There is stuff with a tuba, a snake, and Marilyn Monroe's jacket. Overall, it lands just on the right side of wacky. It's also Chabon's best book. (Come at me, Kavalier & Clay bros!)
Blue Angel by Francine Prose
Another book with a philandering professor at its center. (For anyone keeping score, there are a total of 4 philandering professor characters on this list. Novelists seem to find them really interesting.) This one centers on frustrated novelist Ted Swenson, a creative writing professor at Euston, a fictional New England college. He becomes obsessed with Angela, an exceptionally talented writer in his class. But Angela is not what she appears to be. (Or maybe she is to you. If you go to GoodReads, a lot of people seemed to have called the "twist" ending.) However, I was surprised when I first read it, and it's still worth reading, regardless. It's a smart funny look at college faculty life. I have no idea if it's accurate, but it made me laugh nonetheless. A movie adaptation, renamed Submission, will be released this year starring Stanley Tucci.
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Jeffrey Eugenides fans don 't have it easy. He comes out with a new book roughly every 10 years. So it was a bit of a surprise when he followed up his first two majorly ambitious novels (The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex) with a relatively modest story about a love triangle at Brown University in the 80s. The heroine of the book is Madeleine Hanna, an English major who loves 19th-century novels. She meets and falls in love with Leonard Bankhead in her Semiotics seminar - much to the dismay of her friend, Mitchell, who is in love with her. That 's really about it. Some of the best parts of the novel are the parts that deal with the sudden trendiness of Semiotics in English departments in the 80s and 90s. (I gather this was a common thing on campuses then because it comes up in The Secret History too.) However, the novel becomes less interesting off-campus (in my opinion). It's still worth a read, though. You got to love a book that loves books, and this one clearly does.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
The Ur-Campus Novel. It's the book that makes you want to hang out with rich, snobby English boys. Even though it is set at Oxford, I don't recall any scene where anyone attends a class of any sort. Protagonist Charles Ryder spends much of his time with his friends drinking and discussing aesthetics and drinking and reciting poetry from megaphones and drinking.
When Charles spends the summer with Sebastian, his friend (or more, it's open to interpretation) he meets - and falls in love with - Julia, Sebastian's sister, who looks just like him. Then Sebastian sort of disappears from the book and the second half is pretty forgettable, in my opinion. (It depends on how interesting you find religion.) The FIRST half though is why you see it on so many best novels of all time lists.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The Secret History shares so much DNA with Brideshead Revisited that I was tempted to just write "see above" for most of this entry. Except there are murders in this one. (Spoilers for Brideshead Revisited, I guess. Brideshead Revisited doesn't have any murders.) In The Secret History, scholarship student Richard Papen transfers to Hampden College from California and soon signs up for a very selective Classics program. (Really selective. Like "six people" selective.) Anyway, Richard's fellow classmates are clever, rich, eccentric and somehow still enormously appealing. Most of them, anyway.
Like many students, the group gets waaay too into their major and they decide to attempt a bacchanal, which, in the context of this book, means following certain ancient rituals in an attempt to reach a temporary state of transcendence. Of course, anyone with any sense who has read The Bacchae would advise NOT TO DO THAT and everything goes wrong. And it just keeps getting worse from there. Actually, this one makes me glad I didn 't go to a small college in New England. Mostly.