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ARTiculate: Literature of the campus

by Roa Abdel-Gawad September 10, 2013
ARTiculate: Literature of the campus

Did you know that there is such a literary genre as the ‘campus novel’? The novels in this category tend to take place in academic institutions, with the focalization on either faculty or students. They were a major trend in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and while the genre went through a slump for a few decades, it’s been experiencing a steady rise within the last two, popularized by heavyweight authors such as Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates. The following list includes campus novel classics, as well as some exciting recent additions to the literary school.

The Big U by Neal Stephenson

This underrated book may very well change your life. Or at least your perspective on it. Set in the fictional American Megaversity, this novel sails the reader through gaming clubs, political societies, and religious associations. It offers glimpses into the lives of every kind of student, including ones we would never have looked into otherwise. A satire, a drama, and an adventure novel all rolled into one, the book is as funny as it is sentimental. And while Concordia may have dodged a bullet last year, in this story the faculty and staff do indeed go on strike.

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

One of the most lauded works of the twentieth century, this novel remains as misanthropic and insightful as it did when it first appeared in 1954. Jim Dixon, the protagonist, is a hapless professor of medieval history and one in love at that. Dealing with one bureaucratic colleague after another, he does his best to retain his cushy job and win the affections of the girl. Lucky Jim contains hilarious scenes as our hero navigates through the artifices and pretensions of a university establishment.

Giles Goat-Boy
by John Barth

Read this book only so that you can say you’ve read postmodern Fabulism. The novel takes place on earth…only the entire earth is a single university, with deans instead of kings and queens. Before you get excited immersing yourself in a world where the pope becomes your THEO 101 professor, know that even a campus is not immune to feuds. Published in 1966, the story is an allegory for the Cold War, where the West Campus is at odds with the East Campus, and rioting takes place instead of military tension.

Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me by Richard Fariña

In The Doors’ L.A Woman album, Jim Morrison based the song “Been Down So Long” on this very book. The story revolves around a trouble-making college student during the turbulent 1960s America of the Beat and Love generation, who goes on a journey riddled with police chases, drug dealers, and Cuban revolutionists to find love and meaning. The book has posthumously garnered a cult status among the literary community, namely for its rough-edged style yet profound subject matter.

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

Published after Lolita and definitely standing in safer waters, Pnin is the story of a professor that has immigrated from Russia to the United States in the 1950s and struggles, comically and endearingly, to maintain his dignity through a series of misunderstandings, academic conspiracies, and manipulation from an unreliable narrator – a Nabokovian trademark.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Set in a fictional liberal arts college, this novel centers around Harpooners, the college’s baseball team. The protagonist, Henry Skrimshander, is a gifted infielder, scouted by major leagues as a top draft prospect. But of course, Skrimshander experiences losses when he unexpectedly sinks into a funk. But this is not a story about baseball entirely. This 2011 novel examines the human condition through the bromances, and gay relationships of the team members.

The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis

A wild literary ride, this novel is mostly narrated by three characters, Sean, Paul and Lauren. The three upper middle class bohemian college students experiment with their sexuality and their attractions to one another. There is a lot of sex, drugs and booze in this book. But mostly sex. However, it is through the examination of the debauchery of these characters that we gain an understanding of the emptiness that we are all susceptible to.

Moo by Jane Smiley

Though it’s set in an American agricultural college, the story’s central figure is a large white hog. But wait. Around this hog is a collection of odd characters, corrupt professors, and students who want academic excellence. Some want fame, and others that sex. But it is this hog that stands as a symbol of uninterrupted purity upon which the college experiment happens in this satirical story of greed and politics on campus.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Narrated by the gawky and insecure Richard Papen, this murder mystery is set in a Vermont college and revolves around six classics majors. In contrast to the usual rowdy characters of the campus novel, these students abhor the party lifestyle. The story opens with the murder of one of the students on campus, and the reader becomes absorbed in solving the case. In the process, they grow to learn more about themselves, and begin to dissolve their pretensions.


Making History by Stephen Fry

Everybody’s favourite polymath, Stephen Fry, writes a novel wherein a history graduate student and a physics professor, team up to prevent Adolf Hitler from ever being born. The first half of the book chronicles the young life of Hitler, his mother, and her abusive husband, along with Hitler’s time as a soldier in World War I. In the second half, the characters realize that the world they have now created, one without Hitler in its history, is far from well. Europe is subjugated by a more ruthless Führer, America is in a cold war with Nazi Europe, and the civil rights movement never took place. The novel is thoroughly charming and engaging, just like its author.

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