Scott Johnston, Campusland, St Martin’s Press, New York, 2019 (Hardcover, 322 pages).
“Trigger warning”: Scott Johnston’s satirical novel Campusland “should not be read by those who lack a sense of humour” (Kirkus Reviews). Let’s be more expansive (and inclusive!) and add that the politically correct and easily offended must avoid it at all costs. By extension, this same warning must apply to this review. Good on Kirkus, though, for stating “trigger warning”. I probably wouldn’t have thought of it. Consider yourself warned, my learned friends.
It is a joy for those of us who appreciate a good laugh to read this hilarious romp of a novel, set at fictional Ivy League Devon University, a postmodern “progressive” campus committed to “social justice” (what campus isn’t these days?) and situated in the aesthetically pleasing New England community of Havenport. This novel is even more humorous than Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, and while more esteemed critics than I will doubtless give higher marks to Robertson Davies’ The Rebel Angels or Bernard Malamud’s A New Life, reading Campusland is a heck of a lot more fun. Suffice to say, characters, events, and locations in this novel are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, events, or places is purely coincidental. After all, none of the goings on in this novel would ever happen on a real campus. Or would they?
The novel features quite a motley cast, including woke faculty (even one who is “pangender”), a student body of entitled privileged “cupcakes” (some believing they are oppressed), boorish frat boys, and a grievance mongering, race hustling, man hating Diversity and Inclusion Dean (“Where’s the Equity??!!”). Her gross salary for saving the campus (and the world?) from racism, bigotry, oppression, misogyny, capitalism, etc., is $570,000 a year. Not a bad gig if you can get it.
For good measure, there is also a spineless wonder of a university president, one Milton Strauss, who always caves to – and throws money at – “progressive” activists, enthusiastically supports freedom of speech (provided it is politically correct), cancels conservative campus speakers, and throws faculty under the bus rather than defend them from the mob.
The lightning rod for much (not all) of the campus ire is Ephraim (Eph) Russell, an assistant professor of English, seeking tenure, who loves his discipline (19th century American literature), his lectures, and his interactions with his students – plus the life he has carved out for himself within the pleasing ambience of Havenport. Also, the meals at the faculty club are apparently quite good. In many ways, Eph is the very model of what an academic ought to be; a published biographer of Emerson, who loves intellectual rigour and the pursuit of knowledge for their own sakes. He believes he’s come a long way from his “embarrassing” roots: the family peanut farm in Ashley, Alabama. Indeed, when he tells folks he did his undergrad at Samford (in Alabama), they often think he’s saying Stanford, a misunderstanding he is content to let stand. He is the very model of a postmodern progressive, or so he thinks.
There are some “concerns”, however. Eph, by his own admission, prefers the caffeine jolt of coffee to kombucha, although he will suffer through a glass of the latter when meeting his girlfriend, D’Arcy, at Blue Nation Coffee, the campus café. Am I allowed to say “girlfriend”? Perhaps more egregious is his seeming preference for beer over the finer wines. And if that isn’t bad enough, he even has the audacity, the gall, the sheer nerve, to teach Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in his 19th century American literature class (!!), and he doesn’t even give trigger warnings(!!). Oh the horror! The N-word is used frequently in this novel, which is too much for the “snowflakes” in the Progressive Student Alliance, headed by the ultra-woke “Red” Wheeler (nicknamed for his hair as well as his politics), a seventh year undergrad and multi-million dollar trust fund brat. Of course, Red would love nothing more than to donate all of that money to the “revolution”, and he holds in contempt those “little Eichmanns” who refuse him access to the principle. Poor dear Red is left to make do with the hundreds of thousands of dollars he receives each year in interest, which apparently leaves him with little to donate. Life can be difficult.
Let’s be clear. A good writer, never mind a great writer like Samuel Langhorne Clemens, creates characters in keeping with the times in which they lived. The American South was very much a racist society in the late nineteenth century (and well beyond) and it is appropriate for a writer’s characters to reflect that reality, which includes uttering the N-word. Objectors are free not to take the course. Instead, let me suggest Barrett “Toes” Smallwood’s modern American lit offering. He has the woke verbiage down pat, quotes Michel Foucault, and issues trigger warnings for The Waste Land, The Great Gatsby, and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Anyway, the beat continues. Red’s rival, Jaylen Biggs, president of the Afro-American Cultural Center, sees racism everywhere, or so he lets on, and adeptly “persuades” (extorts?) sycophantic Devon president Milton Strauss to grant $50 million to his, Jaylen’s, organization. No wonder tuition costs are through the roof!! Jaylen hails from tony Rye, New York, went to a private school, and is the son of a neurologist. Yet he is apparently a victim of racism and oppression (as he attends an Ivy League university), while Eph, whose boyhood was spent doing labour intensive work on a family farm that was just making it, and whose honourable older brother died a hero in Afghanistan, is deemed to be “privileged”, and hauled in front of the University Bias Response Team for teaching Huckleberry Finn.
Oh shoot!! I’ve hitherto neglected to mention that D’Arcy, the object of Eph’s affections and Milton Strauss’ executive assistant, is African American, an “inconvenient truth” apparently not known to the Progressive Student Alliance or the University Bias Response Team panel, chaired by the Dean of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, that legend in her own mind, Martika Malik-Adams.
Would a racist and a white supremacist date a person of colour? Of course, the diversity and inclusion hucksters would rationalize their way to “yes”. And it sure would have been fun reading about them twisting themselves into semantic pretzels trying to make that case. Nevertheless, plots are plots and must be thickened. Indeed, the novel benefits by not having the zealots in the know at this stage, given that Lulu and Title IX wait in the wings.
Enacted in the US in 1972 with the best of intentions, Title IX was broadened and weaponized during the Obama years, enabling university administrators like Martika Malik-Adams to “investigate” allegations of rape, assault (sexual or physical), and harassment. The accused, many of whom were innocent, were denied due process and run out on a rail, their reputations destroyed. Yet again, Eph finds himself in Martika’s crosshairs.
Meanwhile, the superficial Lulu is a spoiled narcissistic eighteen-year-old drama queen and first-year student at Devon. She hails from New York, is the daughter of a fabulously wealthy lawyer father and a mother who deserted her shortly after she was born. That would never happen in a politically correct story! Unfortunately, she just happens to be enrolled in Eph’s course. To her credit, she is brighter than many of the students in this novel, but she is also obsessed with notoriety and being “liked” on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Those reduced to collateral damage in her wake are of no consequence.
Returning to her dorm one Saturday morning, her face badly bruised, Lulu is noticed by her residence assistant (RA), a Womyn’s Collective member, who believes Lulu was sexually assaulted, and reports this to Dean Choudhary. It turns out Lulu was in Eph’s office the previous evening to hand in her term paper. While there, she attempted to seduce Eph and was appropriately rebuffed.
In the ensuing firestorm, Lulu meets with Dean DIE – uh, sorry, Martika Malik-Adams – and a Devon staff psychologist, as well as a stenographer. She actually tells the truth about Eph. Of course Martika and the psychologist are having none of it and attribute Lulu’s testimony to PTSD, power imbalances, intimidation, and fear of reprisals from a professor.
In the meeting with Eph, the psychologist is replaced by a lawyer. By contrast, Eph has no legal representation and is not allowed to face his accuser. He maintains his innocence.
In essence, we have a miscarriage of justice and no case. There is no corroboration of the alleged sexual assault and no admission of guilt. But Martika is determined to make a name for herself by “taking down” a professor.
Here is a tip for Martika Malik-Adams and the Title IX kangaroo courts stateside. You have a duty to report alleged rapes, sexual assaults, and other crimes to the police; then a duty to get out of the way and let qualified people in the criminal justice system conduct proper investigations and prosecute where appropriate.
For the record, readers learn halfway through the novel that Lulu left Eph’s office on Friday evening and went to a frat party. She got drunk and “hooked-up”. She woke up the next morning in the frat house common room (or reasonable facsimile), very hung over. She disentangled herself from her sleeping “hook-up”, scooped up her clothes, staggered across the floor, tripped over a sound cable, and crashed cheek first into the corner of a coffee table.
As an afterward, Johnston writes, “while Campusland is written as satire, it doesn’t stretch the truth by much, and sometimes not at all”. Reducing characters, places, and events to caricatures is an effective means to criticize. It is, at the same time, highly entertaining. Indeed, Johnston’s novel is a funny and courageous assessment of what ails the modern campus, an intolerance that has long since spread into the broader society, fueled to a large degree by the media (mainstream and social). His scathing condemnation of Title IX is fitting. One hopes Martika is excessively caricatured, although successful lawsuits against Title IX abuses leads one to conclude she has some basis in reality. And Frances Widdowson, Verushka Lieutenant-Duval, David Lesbarrères, Tomáš Hudlický, Kathleen Lowrey, and Mark Hecht are but a few of the most recent examples of professors in Canada who have drawn the ire of politically correct speech police.