How I Won a Nobel Prize by Julius Taranto: Cancelling the cancelled

Cover image for How I Won the Nobel Prize by Julius TarantoI’m always up for a bit of academic satire which is why I said yes to a proof of Julius Taranto’s How I Won a Nobel Prize, much lauded in the US. Its central theme is cancel culture which, as my very own academic tells me, is a much bigger deal in American academia than in the UK which is not to say it’s a minor issue here. Taranto’s novel sees Helen, one of the brightest minds of her generation, join her Nobel laureate boss, Perry, at a research institute on a small island in the North Atlantic, where he’s been banished along with many other academics and assorted transgressors.

Politics is distracting, frustrating – and yes, oppressive. But it is the price of a free mind.

Helen and Perry have been working on a theory which, if it succeeds, could stem the ravages of climate change. Helen is a brilliant coder, as essential to Perry’s research as his expertise is to the interpretation of her results. When Perry is found guilty of a sex scandal, he’s offered a place at RIP, funded by the fantastically wealthy Buckminster Witherspoon Rubin, chucked off Yale’s executive board and deeply resentful of it. After a year of attempting to fill the Perry gap, Helen persuades her partner to spend twelve months on the island. Hew is reluctant but sees no option; after all Helen may well be about to help save the world. Helen buries herself in work as she always does while Hew becomes increasingly angry at the licensed bad behaviour of RIP’s residents. When Helen accepts an invitation to a party celebrating the overturn of a lawsuit against the institute, Hew aligns himself firmly with the protestors, accusing her of losing her moral compass when it emerges that a young woman has been raped.

One way of life or the other, ours or theirs, is going to be extinguished eventually. They know it’s existential and it’s about time we all woke up to that.

The idea of a bunch of reprehensible academics, keen on banishment to an island where they can fully indulge their awfulness funded by a wealthy man happy to exploit their results for his own gain is amusing but all too believable. The island is awash in cultural appropriation, white supremacy and sexism, all of which pass Helen by, so immersed in her work that she can’t see the wood for the trees but brought up short by both events and her husband’s increasing anger. Taranto’s novel is even-handed in its skewering, taking a poke at po-faced moral superiority while showing the dangers of assuming that those that don’t indulge in bad behaviour can turn their backs on it and bury themselves in work. An enjoyable novel, particularly appealing for academics and their partners.

Picador Books: London 9781035006830 304 pages Hardback

16 thoughts on “How I Won a Nobel Prize by Julius Taranto: Cancelling the cancelled”

  1. I probably enjoy political satire more than academic satire, however I can absolutely see how the academic world would be perfect for satire too. This sounds entertaining.

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