School Ties (or, the Campus Novel as a Counterfoil to Yet More Motherhood)

One of those heady, grey days. Wind gusts up to 55 miles per hour. The maple leaves outside my room are dancing like mad. The little kids at the school behind me have finished recess; the bigger ones at the school across the street are still going strong. It’s loud — a torrent of yips and shrieks and cheers — but I like it. Inside my apartment, the only sounds are the dog’s low snore and the baby’s higher one.

Life right now, as a new mother of two, contains a multitude of dualities. These long, peaceful stretches when my older son is at daycare and the baby and I have the apartment to ourselves are preceded and followed by what I referred to Jen as the “hurdy gurdy hamster wheel” of wakeups and bedtimes, breakfasts and dinners, dropoffs and pickups and as much dedicated playtime as my jump-ahead mind allows. There is the language of hurry and andale andale and let’s go and that of just a minute and hold on, darlin’ and I’m coming. 

There are times when I’m tending to two small bodies or one, times when I’ve fed the baby by six and can slip away for a morning run. Just once, my husband and I secured minders for both children and went out on our own for a night, and let me tell you: it was worth the eight hours of driving required to do it. 

And then there are the constants. The tiredness, of course. Synapses on the fritz. The nagging list of shoulds. The guilt at turning my toddler’s world topsy-turvy. Counterbalanced, luckily, by a low-lying thrill that occasionally gusts up just like this wind: we are doing this whole family of four thing. Life feels full in a way it hasn’t in a while — not because life with one child was not fulfilling, but because pregnancy threw me into a nine month waiting room, and expectancy kind of obscures those beatitudes. 

All that said, I’m still clinging to my pre-baby vestiges when I can. Running, writing (I’ve a goal to finish a second draft of one book by November 1, and retool a fifth of another before maternity leave’s end. So far, so gute, leaving aside the whole issue of quality). Drinking more than one beer in a sitting. And reading, of course. I’ve realized that most of my posts are prompted by what I’m reading. Part of what took me so long to write this one was rounding up enough synapses to connect the life:lit dots. Which are: wait for it: that it is autumn and I am reading campus novels. 

To be fair, this is a train that left the station back in the summer, with The Secret History. (Still in my top five. Please read it!) But then September came, and, for the first time I can remember here in the city, dropped August’s humid mug for a stretch of real-deal crisp mornings. Textbook start-of-the-school-year-in-New-England mornings. In the hospital, I’d read Consider the Lobster in its entirety, and the Dostoyevsky essay reminded me I’d been meaning to read The Idiot (the Baufman, not FD’s), and both lead, logically, to The Marriage Plot — another school book, with a main character based on DFW — and then, for a shift in perspective from student to teacher, it was onto Richard Russo’s Straight Man. And now I’ve just started Ann Beattie’s A Wonderful Stroke of Luck. I’m finding it hard to follow, if I’m being honest. Either it’s just too elliptical and staccato — which I wouldn’t have thought possible — or the aforementioned synapses are to blame. 

Anyways, The Idiot was just as good as everyone says it is. Before I’d read it, I would have said that:

a) I don’t like oblique narrators.

b) what I think of as the Russian style of description, rich as it is in detail, was not one I sought out. Too formal; too polite. Eg, A Gentleman in Moscow, to me, was like a delicate necklace in a glass box. Nice to look at, but I couldn’t touch it. You know? 

c) while the opening line of The Metamorphosis has stuck to me like a burr, I otherwise eschewed surrealist writing for reasons that boil down to reasons a) and b).  

Well, throw all those out the window, because The Idiot had an oblique narrator with an even more oblique love interest, was written in a formal, polite tone, and had a decidedly surrealist sense of humor, and I loved it. 

The Idiot primarily takes place at Harvard, in the mid-1990s, before jumping over to Hungary in its final third. Though the narrator is hyper aware of her surroundings, there is a refreshing lack of self-consciousness (faux or otherwise) about the school itself. It could have been any other school, except the people in it are all very smart, and opportunities to add zany or esoteric bullets to their CVs abound. The narrator is a Turkish American freshman named Selin, who comes to Harvard armed with a lack of direction and multi-disciplinary talents (she’s a skilled artist, a classically-trained violinist, and a budding creative writer). She signs up for Russian, because why not, and in that class meets the novel’s other two main characters: Ivan, the enigmatic Hungarian mathematician, and Svetlana, a Serbian prone to articulate stream-of-conscious psychoanalysis, both of herself and anyone who crosses her path. Svetlana is the ideal foil to Selin, a charming motormouth who gives voice and heft to the reader’s own ideas about her more phlegmatic friend. And then there’s Ivan. Early on, Selin is paired with him in class, where they act out passages from the strange love story that serves as their Russian textbook. Soon, they strike up an email correspondence, at first in the voices of the characters from the story, and then, eventually, in their own. These emails start out as surrealism and become realism; part of Selin’s coming of age involves her occasioning the shift; though Ivan is older, he lacks the cajones to do so.

The Idiot is, above all, a coming of age novel, with elements of the picaresque (the Hungarian episode, in which Selin teaches English in a series of that country’s rural villages, to dryly hilarious affect), and the epistolary (the many emails between Selin and Ivan). It’s also a book about learning — about intelligent people who like to learn, which again, I found refreshing. It goes down easy, but is unabashedly intellectual. It’s also very solidly constructed.

In these ways, as well as its campus setting, The Idiot has much in common with The Marriage Plot. The latter is set at Brown, in the early 1980s, when semiotics and Reaganism were all the rage, and reading for pleasure was cast aside for textual deconstruction. Which is unfortunate for Madeline, the novel’s female protagonist and center of its love triangle, a woman who’s chosen to major in English for the “most old-fashioned reason of all: she loved to read.” It is when Madeline, who has an unerring sense for what is cool, temporarily casts her Austens and Brontes aside and decamps to Semiotics, that she meets Leonard, a brilliant, bandana-wearing, tobacco-chewing biology major from Portland, and falls in love with him. The scene where we learn that Madeline has fallen for Leonard is another burr: Madeline, in sweats and smudged glasses, is reading Barthes in her dorm room, and waiting for Leonard to call. It’s a Friday night; she’s eating peanut butter from a jar; the window is open to the liquid April air. Her father calls to ask about graduation plans and wonders what she’s doing in on a Friday night. Barthes talks about the exquisite loneliness of love and Madeline has her semiotics eureka moment. And then Leonard calls and they go and see a Fellini film. In paraphrasing, I may have spoiled the scene, but it’s one of my favorites. 

Madeline’s falling in love with Leonard is a problem for Mitchell Grammaticus, spiritual quester, Eugenides stand-in, and the triangle’s third leg, because he is in love with Madeline, and has been since he encountered her doing laundry during a dorm toga party at the start of their freshman year. It is a problem for Madeline because Leonard is a manic depressive who, a month after they begin dating, will go off his meds. 

While Mitchell backpacks around Europe and takes the easiest jobs at Mother Teresa’s Home for the and Dying, in Calcutta, and alternately suppresses and plumbs the depths of his feelings for Madeline, Madeline makes a series of sacrifices or at the very least unself-serving decisions for Leonard, skipping graduation to visit him in the psychiatric ward, nursing him to semi-stability over the ensuing summer, and following him to the research institution on Cape Cod, where he’s been awarded a prestigious, and essentially purposeless, fellowship. 

Anyways, here I am giving you a plot summary when my reason for loving this book has little to do with the plot. No, I love it because the characters and settings are so richly rendered, and because it is a joy to read. The dialogue sings; there are a multitude of pithy observations on everything from critical theory to the sex lives of yeast cells. And there is, in Leonard’s section, a deeply unsettling, no-holds-barred depiction of true mania. Yes, the book gives too much over to Mitchell, whose means of eventually getting over Madeline is to realize he’s too good for her (or, more insultingly, too smart for her). Revenge of the nerds, that old saw. But it is, by and large, a perfect novel. And in this era of precious time, why settle for less? 

And maybe it’s not just about being in the throes of autumn, this campus novel attraction.  Maybe it’s about the relative fixity of my memories of my own campus lives, and the linearity of them, compared to the quasi atemporal nature of my present-day memories, and the Pollockian begetting of them. I am sitting cross-legged on my bed starting this post with the baby draped in the crook of the cross, eyes at half-mast, nose at half-wheeze, and then I am running down Henry Street over fallen yellow beech leaves and jagging to the waterfront with its Star Wars cranes, just as I did ten years ago. I might even be wearing the same shirt. And then it is sunny, sunny and the lone sugar maple in Fort Greene park is a’roar, and the Brooklyn Tech XC team is milling about and I am trying not to envy the girls their untrammeled legs, their tidy french braids and the way they push their sweatshirt sleeves above their elbows and bounce on the balls of their feet. I huff huff gruff gruff like the triceratops in my son’s dinosaur book up the hill and the baby in the carrier winces at the sun. And then another grey day, threatenings of rain, and I’m back on my bed, finishing this post for the sake of preserving the authenticity of the grey day at its outset. Finishing this post and remembering grey days past, grey days along the Charles, scouting absently for box turtles and thinking about the Baudrillard essay I’d just read and wondering if the way hyperreality worked, I’d see the box turtles on their log even if they weren’t there at all; grey days along the southern tip of Manhattan, listening to “City Middle” and thinking about Paul Gruchow’s spare, beautiful chronicle of a year on the prairie, and how much the spare beauty of the landscape itself had influenced the writing. Ah, the campus novel is made for such grey days, and will withstand moths far better than a Shetland sweater.

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