Campus Novels

Ah, the campus novel: questionable professors leading students astray, all the while unable to find any kind of professional or creative satisfaction simply because they are Academic Men, set in hallowed Ivy League surroundings… yeah, these books are not like that. These campus novels are distinct in their ability to eschew the trappings of the traditional format, and they’re much more entertaining for it.

The Late Americans, by Brandon Taylor

Anyone who read Brandon Taylor’s Booker Prize-nominated debut novel Real Life
will be only too familiar with the inimitable sense of wrenching ennui he can conjure just by
relaying simple details in beautiful prose. His second novel, eagerly anticipated and much
lauded by basically everyone, is similarly wrought in the most appealing way. The Late
Americans elegantly chronicles the loosely interlocking lives of a group of university students
in Iowa, with each character deftly detailed and thrust into the melodrama. Taylor is already
a big deal in America (he’s the recipient of a steadily growing number of awards and
fellowships), and on the strength of this stunning novel it’s easy to see why.

The Netanyahus, by Joshua Cohen

The perfect campus novel: prose-driven, devastatingly intelligent, clearly written by a genius. Ruben Blum is reflecting on his career and life and especially his association with one Benzion Netanyahu and his family at Corbin College in almost-upstate New York–with detailed wit, academic, know-it-all-ness and maybe just a pinch of Pooterishness?

The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner

This is almost an anti-campus novel, in that unlike so many ‘classic’ examples it really interrogates the role of masculinity in education and academia. Across long chapters that effortlessly shift voice and tone, we see the varied perspectives of the Gordon family – psychiatrist parents, champion debater son, all of them tied to the idiosyncratic school of the title – as they reckon with the shocking actions of one bullied and maladjusted high school student.

Notes on a Crocodile, by Qiu Miaojin
trans. Bonnie Huie

First published in Taiwan in 1994, this fast became a cult novel in both Taiwan and China, and the narrator’s nickname ‘Lazi’ to this day, is still used as slang for Lesbian. Which is to say, this was a very impactful novel-then, and indeed, now. Set in post-martial law Taiwan, it follows the coming of age of a bunch of queer misfits studying at Taiwan’s most prestigious university. It’s a decidedly avant-garde, often hard to follow novel but it is also a deeply moving account of queer friendship, first queer romance, obsession, shame and desire. The blurb labels it a ‘poignant masterpiece’ – a fairly accurate description, I reckon. 

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanigahara

“Campus novel” might be a stretch, but A Little Life has the “energy” of a campus novel. At least, somewhat. This tome of a book follows four best friends: Jude, Willem, Malcom and JB, after they have graduated from university and begin to craft and live their own lives in New York city. It’s brilliant like nothing else, but devastating too like nothing else so do proceed with some caution. It’s a bit like, well, love.

The Life of the Mind, by Christine Smallwood

I know, I know, finally! A campus novel that’s not all about men. Unlike many an other campus novel, The Life of the Mind is deeply unromantic. Caustic and unrelenting, it illustrates the cruelties of the university and its increasingly bureaucratic structures, the ways in which it has contributed to pushing our brilliant narrator to the edge. A campus novel for our time, if ever there was one.

The Coming Bad Days, by Sarah Berstein

Like The Life of the Mind, The Coming Bad Days does not shy away from the dismal nature of the university, the depression with which it is riddled. The kids may not be all right–as we well know–but neither it seems, are the professors. In self-imposed isolation in the university town, the narrator begins a research project about Paul Celan, about whom she knows nothing. The novel is laced with grey and paranoia, until our narrator meets the fierce Clara, who offers her another way of living and of loving. Funny and dark, and somewhat absurd, this is a confusing but utterly brilliant novel.

Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon

The Gaskells’ dog, Doctor Dee, is surprisingly pivotal in this madcap early classic from Michael Chabon – if the dog doesn’t do it for you, stick with this one for the most dazzling sentence-by-sentence evocation of the life academic as Lit Professor Grady Tripp falls to bits amid a potential creative usurping by one of his own students, all while grappling with his disastrously overlong unfinished second novel.

The Idiot, by Elif Batuman

Rarely have we read a more accurate depiction of the crippling ennui of being ‘that age’, when relationships are so desperately difficult that it can paralyse your brain, debilitate your emotions and generally turn you into a confusing mess of a person. This deadpan and hilarious campus novel has an undercurrent of melancholy so specific it slightly hurts.

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