A few months ago, at the stroke of midnight, I found myself—quivering, and naked but for sturdy running shoes—in the hallway of my college library. I was surrounded by two of my best friends and twenty or so acquaintances; we held bags of candy and bags of our clothes, waiting for the signal. Our leader raised her hand.
“T-B-I!” she cried out. “Y…T…B!” we answered in unison1. And then, loudly, we were off, down six flights of stairs to confront the inevitable spectators.
College campuses, as places, as settings, are these arrested works of beauty, where faces, festivals, and feelings change, but, fundamentally, the state of things remains the same. It’s a sentiment reflected in contemporary literature, where the campus reads as an enchanted place—unfocus your eyes a bit, and it fades into the background; squint, and its role is thrown into sharp relief.
About a month after I desecrated a public study space with my nudity, I was a freshly minted university graduate. To stoke an immediate nostalgia, a friend who ran with me lent me one of the first campus novels I ever read: Donna Tartt’s 1992 masterpiece, The Secret History. Looking back, I’ve become convinced the book first dropped into my lap at a particularly opportune moment; I read it while I still lived in New Haven, eating and sleeping and dreaming fewer than ten minutes from where my last classes were held. As I fell deeper into the novel’s murder-mystery-in-reverse plot—and its airlessly beautiful campus—I even caught myself filling in my own adventures, which all happened not so far south of Tartt’s Hampden College in Vermont.
I was captivated, as much by the prose as by how strongly I identified with Richard Papen, who tells the story. In the beginning of the novel, Richard is painted as a disaffected suburban youth, someone whose sensibilities skew sensitive, whose dreams rub up uncomfortably against the realities of small town life. In the first line of the first chapter, Richard introduces the Greek concept of hamartia, the idea of the fatal flaw:
Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.
It’s a sentiment with which many undergraduates identify, though I’m not sure how many would put it so eloquently, but it certainly depends on your definition of picturesque. If we take it to mean “the best four years of your life,” I think many more might agree.
From out west, born into a thoroughly average family of modest means, Richard refashions himself into a consummate aesthete immediately after arriving at Hampden, the better to fit into its rarified atmosphere. Richard stands for every kid who’s ever been seduced by bright lights, by the big city, by the promise of the unfamiliar. Though I never went so far as to deliberately conceal my background from my peers (and I’ve also never committed a murder), I felt a similar pressure to conform. To be something. In other words, I was—and perhaps still am—one of those hopeless kids.
I grew up in Tyler, Texas, a small city nestled in what’s known as the Piney Woods, the southeastern corridor of the state. I came of age as a black male in the deep South, near one of the old hearts of the Confederacy; it’s not a stretch to say I never felt like I really belonged. Tyler is notable for perhaps two reasons, one surprising: its smallness—of ambition, of mind—and its large, industrially perfect roses. In this rose city, the summers are blistering, winter has a bite, and the pine needles are always, always green. It’s also never seemed so far away as it does now, eleven months after graduation, eight months in New York City—here, there’s no green left.
I left home as quickly as I could after graduation. Now, I like to imagine I arrived to college just as disoriented and elated as Richard. With its intricate life and obscure rhythms, that campus sprang into my consciousness fully formed, as a single, immovable—as it seemed then—object. It was beautiful, sun-drenched, and, most importantly, the opposite of Tyler; I was deliriously happy to feel, for a moment, that I was somewhere I belonged.
Four years later the place hadn’t physically changed, but my sense memories of it had laid its geography bare. Students had come before me and gone after me, until suddenly I was at the front of the queue, naked. Perhaps this is what makes the campus such a compelling setting for fiction: like a stretch of coastline, lively waves of fresh faces bring steady but imperceptible change. Like Tyler’s pine needles, campus fiction is evergreen in its sense of timeliness. Fully two decades after the publication of The Secret History, the story remains shockingly fresh. This is the genius of the genre—if the sex, drugs, and tensions are immediately familiar, it’s because they’re fundamentally the same. Don’t you remember meeting your neighborhood friendly drug dealer?
Two or three years ago, when I worked as an editor at my school’s alt-weekly, I was tasked with writing a piece on staying in town after graduation. At the time I wasn’t sure how to approach the topic, and so ran aground on a deadline. In hindsight, how I decided to end it—around three or four in the morning—feels a bit hyperbolic.
Our bright college years are brief indeed, and staying in New Haven can’t change the finality of graduation. Four years from now, no undergraduates will remember our names; we’ll become faceless alumni, quickly forgotten.
This, I think, is the essence of why the campus novel holds its weight as a subgenre of fiction. In transience there is enchantment, and there is also the reminder that time flows inevitably forward. The university years are no more than an eddy in a tide pool, quickly created and just as quickly dissipated. I left Richard and The Secret History with an acute sense of what had stayed behind after commencement. More than the ceremony itself, finishing the novel marked an ending—or, at least, a chapter closed.
A few months ago I made an unplanned trip to my alma mater. While the brilliant yellows and deep reds of the leaves were exactly as I remembered them from years ago—because the interstitial seasons are the most beautiful, most collegiate of all—I felt a sense of unreality invade, a new awareness of how I’d aged while the world passed this place by. It was a feeling I remembered from the last pages of The Secret History.
The next morning, I mentioned as much to a friend who’s still an
undergraduate. “It’s this crazy place that we’ve only understood
through books,” she said in reply. “A lot of people here only think
of life in terms of literature!” In fiction’s refraction of life we
see as though through a glass, more lit than dark.
1 As you may have guessed, “TBIYTB” is indeed an acronym. It’s borrowed from the Robert Browning poem “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” first published in 1864, whose opening lines read: “Grow old along with me!/The best is yet to be.”