I’ve long enjoyed campus novels but much more so since my partner became an academic. They frequently have a satirical bent as if the author’s getting things of their chest which I’ve come to understand is quite often the case. Here, then, are five of many campus novels I’ve read, three with links to my reviews
I’ll start with Malcolm Bradbury’s very funny The History Man in which the Kirks who met as undergraduates, both from conservative backgrounds, reinvent themselves when Howard is appointed lecturer in sociology. Both have thrown fidelity to the winds but Barbara’s adventures have been stymied by pregnancy while Howard marches ahead, Marxist credentials loudly proclaimed, sleeping with both students and staff whenever the opportunity presents itself while indulging in Machiavellian departmental politics. It all comes to a head with a party. I chortled my way through Bradbury’s novel several times years ago but it’s the excellent BBC adaptation starring Anthony Sher as Howard and Geraldine James as Barbara, that I remember most vividly. Howard wouldn’t last five minutes in academia these days.
Very different from his Maine-set books which remind me a little of John Irving, Straight Man was the first novel I read by Richard Russo. Russo was an academic for some time and this story of the temporary chair of a department tasked with drastically reducing its budget feels like a bit of catharsis as Hank, hit hard by a mid-life crisis, much to his wife’s despair, stumbles ineptly through difficulty after difficulty. There are some wonderfully slapstick scenes to enjoy not least a passage when Hank finds himself trapped in the roof space above an office where his colleagues are voting on his dismissal which very nearly did for me.
Julie Schumacher’s epistolatory Dear Committee Members is another entertaining slice of campus fiction written by an academic. The long-suffering Jason T. Fitger is working from his office in his crumbling English department. He spends an inordinate amount of time writing letters of recommendation, occasionally interspersed with pleas for funding for his advisee. Threads of Fitger’s past run through the increasingly waspish letters: professional repercussions from old affairs; his sojourn at the notorious Seminar writing workshop; his early flash of literary success and his incontinent use of his personal life as material for his novels. There are some nice little digs at IT – help desks who seem hell-bent on doing the opposite – and a particularly enjoyable incident involving the ‘reply all’ button.
Elaine Hsieh Chou’s Disorientation extends the campus theme, taking some satisfying swipes at academia while exploring racism and identity through Ingrid Yang, in the final year of her PhD, who stumbles across a note in the archives that might offer liberation from her dissertation on the poetic technique of the late Xiao-Wen Chou, a much-acclaimed Chinese American poet, one of the rare people of colour employed by Barnes University. After a great deal of sleuthing, helped by her best friend, Ingrid manages to narrow down the identity of the note’s signatory leading to an astonishing revelation which will eventually result in trashing a multitude of academic reputations. There are some very funny moments in Chou’s satire – she’s not afraid of a bit of farce – by it’s essentially an acerbic commentary on race and academia all wrapped up in an enjoyable piece of storytelling.
No hint of satire in Lee Cole’s Groundskeeping which follows Owen, who’s working as groundskeeper in order to pay for his writing course. At a college party he meets Alma, the writer in residence, younger than him but with a short story collection already published. Owen’s days are spent pruning trees, his evenings writing or watching westerns with his grandfather, Pop, until his colleague invites him to a bar where he sees Alma again and slips into a relationship with her that grows into love despite the many obstacles in their way. Cole has a knack for sharp characterisation – Pop was my particular favourite with his hobo past and his quiet concern for the grandson he doesn’t entirely understand. I thoroughly enjoyed this quietly accomplished novel which offers an outsider’s view of university life.
Any campus novels you’d like to add to my list?
If you’d like to explore more posts like this, I’ve listed them here.
That’s it from me for a few weeks. Tomorrow, H and I are off on our first real railway jaunt since Covid struck. No doubt there will be a little reading along the way.