Watching NYU and Columbia, among others, fill up with students in New York City in the fall, it’s hard not to think of the psychosexual mayhem soon to come, and the literary novels it may produce.
All those overachieving, overindulged gorgeous youngsters, living together under pressure … what else would one expect?
Which got me thinking: Every decade seems to have its signature sex-and-drugs-and-college literary novel, a great big juicy combo of the zeitgeist, pharmaceutical du jour, and angst- or anomie-ridden bright young things. I have my favorites; what are yours?
The 1980s brought Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, which featured one never-to-be-forgotten
scene of a young woman applying mascara in a college dorm room, separating her eyelashes one by one with a needle. The novel’s protagonist quickly takes off from his thinly disguised elite Eastern college (the author’s own alma mater, Bennington) for his hometown, L.A., on holiday break, but the book is indelibly associated with Bennington, where Ellis wrote it as an undergrad. Drug du jour: cocaine.
Donna Tartt’s 1992 bestseller The Secret History gathered the darkness of a bunch of super-clever classics majors at a thinly disguised Eastern college (Bennington again!) who fall under the spell of a magnetic professor and wind up performing Bacchic rituals. And we all know where those lead. If we don’t, Tartt does, and she excellently evokes the creepy, over-intellectualized sexiness and evil of the whole enterprise. Bacchic = wine. Lotsa liquor.
The 2010s, in their short life, have produced not one but two books in this little genre: Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot, set at Brown University and just after, and Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, set in the Midwest (for once!) at an elite liberal arts school. Eugenides includes lots of literary theory: 1980s French theory (loads of Barthes!) and feminist, in particular, while Harbach gifts his characters with extensive Moby-Dick studies, going further with the elbow-in-the-side snicker potential of “Hey, it’s got DICK in the title” than I would have thought possible, somehow producing a tender, insightful, and unforgettable look at homosexuality, male bonding, and nonhomosexual male sports bonding. Drugs: pot (and lots of it) and prescription painkillers. Also baseball.
But what about the 2000s? Try as I might, I came up with only Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which has a whole other flavor and isn’t even set in a college—Hailsham is a boarding school. (And boarding-school-set novels deserve a whole other post!)
What are your picks for the best sex-drugs-college literary novels of the past four decades? Can you think of one from the 2000-09 era? Let me know!