Every year at this time, just as the summer heat is reaching its most suffocating extremes, I start to look forward to going back to New England for another year at college and finding relief in the looming autumnal chill and academic high jinks. The problem with that, though, is that I’ve been out of college for two years now, and that annual retreat is no longer an option for me. It’s a rotten feeling.
Since I loved my time at college, I spend most of August and September clawing for memories of my favorite classes, most colorful professors, and those Friday nights that I never quite remembered even in the first place. Luckily, the perfect tonic does exist for all of this pathetic yearning: the campus novel. I guess it’s something of a shadowy genre—you probably have to really want it to exist to recognize it in the first place—but all that’s really required of a book to be considered a campus novel is for its main action to take place in and around a college setting.
As a genre, it’s been around since the 1950s, and it boasts works by the likes of Mary McCarthy, Don DeLillo, and Philip Roth. My interest in campus novels pares that list down quite a bit though; I like to focus on the more acidic, tongue-in-cheek side of the spectrum. The campus novels I love pull the curtain back on the wretched foibles of academia and out every last shortcoming they can. It’s these uproarious exposés—not some idealized, soggy reveries—that drop-kick me back in time and satiate the wild hunger I have for my salad days.
So, without further ado, here’s some of my recommended back-to-school reading for those who won’t be going back to school.
Part One: Friday Night Blights
The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis I may be a little biased because the school depicted in Ellis’s second novel is actually a thinly-veiled Bennington College (the infamous liberal arts college of iniquity and my alma mater), but the shrewd depiction of what hedonistic zombies co-eds become when night falls will surely ring true for many. Employing the impossibly jaded first-person voices of a handful of narrators, Ellis really nails the numbing effects of living in an isolated social environment and delivers a searing portrait of how truly, despicably self-obsessed college kids can be. Inconsequential minutiae are obsessed over with positively rabid devotion, while things like classes, social decency, and the future hardly seem to matter at all. Ellis’s emotional wasteland is a bit over-the-top, but I have to, woefully, admit that some passages might as well have been pulled from my journal sometime around my sophomore year’s second semester. Conflicting narrative accounts of the same events only help to establish the hazy, claustrophobic atmosphere where nothing is what it seems but everything is too real to handle. While not quite Proust’s madeleines, the stench of cigarette butts in half-empty Solo cups stokes the memory just as well.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt Another gem set at a pseudo-Bennington (but really, it could apply to most liberal arts colleges, if not all academic institutions), this one is decidedly less relatable with its murder-driven plot. That doesn’t mean the overall mood of it won’t hit home, though! Like The Rules of Attraction, the emotional erosion of cooped-up college students comes into sharp focus. But, unlike Ellis’s numbed drones, Tartt’s students are dangerously passionate about their studies. Granted, I was never driven to murder over my dedication to my area of specialty (English Modernism so rarely prompts bloodshed these days), but there is something frighteningly relatable about the lengths these characters go in the name of intellectual curiosity—and how much further they go to cover it up.
Despite their often dark subject matter, these novels so gamely throw the very real moral deficits of college students in the reader’s face, making them impossible to resist—whether you loved college or not. And so what if these are technically cautionary tales? Does any college experience not end up as one?
Next time: Faculty Fumbles . . .
David Archer is a publicity assistant at Vintage Books & Anchor Books. He graduated from Vermont’s Bennington College in 2008 and hasn’t gotten over it yet.