Monday, November 3, 2008

A New Feature: Books of a Feather: College

I've had this idea for a while now, but I've kind of been saving it for NaBloPoMo, when I'd really need it. The idea is that I take a theme (hopefully, ultimately one a reader suggest, but for now one I've just made up) and I talk about a bunch of books or short stories related to that theme.

As you may have guessed from the title of this post, my first theme is "college". The three books I picked are My Name is Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe; Everything Looks Impressive by Hugh Kennedy; and The Secret History by Donna Tarrt.

All three depict real colleges, but only one comes out and says so. Everything Looks Impressive is set at Yale, and tells the story of Alex, a young man from a lower-middle-class family who is living his dream there on a scholarship. Yet, he finds it pretty socially challenging. His roommates (they stuck him in a suite) are not so much living a dream as fulfilling a destiny. Alex faces many embarrassing financial moments, where he's expected to return the expensive favors his roommates do for him ("Hey, it's nothing," they say after paying a $500 tab, "you can get it next time!"). He's not as hip and trendy as most of the other students, either. The only person he truly manages to connect with is Jill, a senior and feminist who flirts aggressively with him, yet has a female lover. When she dies in an ugly gay-bashing incident that Alex suspects his roommate my have participated in, it messes up his already fragile grip on the social scene at Yale.

The Secret History and Charlotte, on the other hand, go out of their way to disguise their true setting. Hampden College, of The Secret History, is obviously Bennington College, with its rural Vermont locale, its liberal arts curriculum and its hefty price tag. The true locale of Charlotte was a bit more difficult to pin down, but I believe it to be Duke University, strong on academics, athletics, and Greek life, and founded by an heiress just as Charlotte's Dupont is, although Dupont is somewhere in the Northeast.

Of the three books, Charlotte and Everything Looks Impressive are the most similar, dealing with the disillusionment of a bright but poor young student. Both, too, are as much a chronicle of the times as of the lives of the people in the story. Alex's tale was set and published in the late 1980s, and there are ample references to 80s music and fashion, to the drugs and cars popular at the time. Charlotte's tale came out in 2004 and the references are even more amped up. Diesel Jeans, in particular, got such freqent mention that it started to seem like product placement. There are also some references to academic fashion, and fashion of belief. For Alex, the arbiters of cool on the campus dress in all black and throw cross-dressing balls or declare their lives art projects and invite the whole campus to come spy on them. For Charlotte, the arbiters of cool are the ultra-liberal editors of the school paper, who draw cartoons they believe to be edgy and see themselves as the only ones there to learn.

The Secret History, on the other hand, places academics at the center of the novel (imagine that). Richard signs up for Greek on a whim, and becomes part of an elite classics clique, who take all of their coursework from the same professor and generally hold themselves aloof from the rest of Hampden College. It is their immersion in their academics that leads to the explosive events of the novel, as they attempt to hold a Greek bacchanal. The attempt leads ultimately to the group murdering one of their own, and getting away with it in only the legal sense. Of the three, it's the strangest and the best. The characters are the most vividly drawn, the moral dilemmas they face the most thought-provoking.

What I find striking about all three books, though, is that they're clearly not written for people who are in college. In fact, it seems that of all the demographic groups out there, only the elderly are more devoid of a genre aimed at them. There are lots of books for young children, intermediate-grade children, junior high and high school students. They pick back up in the "chick lit" aimed at women in their twenties and early thirties (although I'm sure women of all ages read them too). For men of that age, there is some "dude lit" out there, books full of very technical explanations of things blowing up. And of course, there's also the stuff a cut above that either gender could enjoy, that would carry you for most of your life.

But the college books seem to be more for people who are out of college. Charlotte, to me, was particularly laughable. She was absolutely shocked, SHOCKED that her fellow unmarried students were having sex and drinking. Even after seeing it happen in front of her, repeatedly, she was still shocked. Didn't this girl ever watch a movie, or see a magazine? It wore off, although I did feel he got some details right. I, too, had "friends" like Bettina and Mimi, where the "friendship" was essentially based on having met during orientation and not knowing anyone else. They fell apart pretty rapidly, though, whereas Charlotte kept hers through most of the book. Maybe my college was different, but I have no memory of any sort of elite group that everyone wanted to be in like there was at Dupont.

In fact, of the three books, none of them squares with my own experience. All three were based on freshman alienation. At my school, I didn't meet many people who had a hard time adjusting, and I didn't myself. I found the social groups to be pretty fluid, although there were definite cliques. And most of the people worked at their classes. It wasn't "uncool" to go to the library. If you had to study, you said so, unlike the frat boys and b-ballers in Charlotte, who had to lie. I guess in a weird way, excpet for the murder, The Secret History was the closest to what I experienced in college: a vibrant, fluid party scene (there were no "right ones" at my school, the right one was whichever one had the most beer and the best music); intense, tight-knit friendships (again, without the murder: I want to emphasize this), and thought-provoking classes that we worked hard at. But none of them really captured it, and would probably be laughed at by most people who were in college. I look forward to a college novel for college students. If anyone knows one, I'd like to hear about it.

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