A Look Back at Tomorrow – Review of Campusland

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I have to admit, Campusland is not the kind of book I would normally read, precisely because it’s the kind of book everybody reads. When it comes to popular fiction, I tend to abide by the Yogi Berra maxim “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too busy.”

But I had to read Campusland.

Call it “being true to your school” (the author was a classmate of mine).

Call it “reciprocity” (he’s followed my own author’s journey, including, of all things, my being interviewed by his cousin at a radio station in Minnesota).

Most important, call it “inspired curiosity” (the topic promised the allure of topical irreverence).

The story takes us through (literally) the trials and tribulations of several characters during a full academic year at the fiction Ivy-like Devon University. While the story focuses on a young professor seeking tenure, it also highlights a new “first year” (a.k.a., “freshman”) as she searches for her destiny. It’s not quite a coming of age story, but it is billed as a satire, and a humorous one at that.

So, I dutifully, honorably, and intellectually read Scott Johnston’s newly published Campusland (St. Martin’s Press, August 13, 2019).

I didn’t get more than a few pages into it when that agonizing PTSD set in.

The book didn’t take me back to my college days. The time machine shot right past that era of my life. Past the place, where, as a physics and astronomy double major (triple if you consider all the math courses I had to take), I had precious little time for reading anything as banal as frivolous fiction.

The book landed me instead into the time of forced literary analysis, otherwise known as “AP English.” This was a time when “AP” didn’t mean “one-year,” but “high school forever” (or at least from tenth through twelve grades).

I especially remembered tenth grade. That was the year of dystopian science fiction.

As I perused through the first several chapters of Campusland, I quickly became frustrated, just as I had become in tenth grade.

But not in a bad way. Just in a head-slapping way.

You know what I mean. It’s how you react when you just can’t get over how stupid and naïve Winston Smith is in 1984. Yeah, Johnston’s ambitious if not out-of-place tenure-track professor Eph offers shades to Orwell’s tragic hero.

For those not familiar with dark totalitarian fiction (Was 1984 a satire or an allegory? Answer and explain in the blue book. You have thirty minutes), think of it as one of those frustrating horror movie scenes. The one where the blissfully unaware teenagers could have survived the monster if only they would have ignored their hormones for a minute and looked in the rear view mirror!

See what I mean about frustrating. It’s finger-nails-on-the-chalkboard agonizing. But it’s also what makes the story so riveting.

So it is with Campusland. There’s a point, however, where we leave dystopia and head straight for existentialism (or is it absurdism?). Eph morphs (and not in a Kafkaesque sort of way) from Winston Smith to Meursault, Albert Camus’ protagonist from The Stranger.

Camus was eleventh grade. Don’t get me wrong. My distaste for Camus, specifically, and existentialism, generally, doesn’t prevent me from admiring Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, which plays like a classic The Twilight Zone episode.

(For TTZ fans, the closest approximation comes in Episode 79, ““Five Characters in Search of an Exit.” Sartre, however, wasn’t the source. Rod Serling and Buck Houghton, who wrote the episode, said they based it on Marvin Petal’s unpublished short story “The Depository.”)

Existentialism elevates the stupid hormone-enraged teenagers to the absurd. These are the ones that aren’t ignorant – they’re fully aware of their surroundings – they simply don’t care. AAARGH!

All I remember from The Stranger was how stupid Meursault was. He could have easily got out of his situation if only he would have told the truth. This didn’t seem a terribly difficult task given: a) it was true; and, b) it totally exonerated him.

Nonetheless, Meursault allowed absurd existentialism (Camus preferred to call it “Absurdism”) consume his demeanor. He gladly suffered the ultimate consequence. Ooo! That’s so frustrating. Stupid Meursault. Stupid Camus. Stupid existentialism.

If these thoughts appear a bit erudite for a mass market book, then buckle your seatbelts. It’s about to get a whole lot more “down the rabbit hole”-ish.

I don’t know whether it was Scott or St. Martin’s Press, but someone decided to assign Campusland to the Amazon category “Satire.” I can see why they might had decided to do that.

It’s the same reason I can see why Copernicus (or his editor) decided to categorize his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (i.e., his ground-breaking and heretical heliocentric theory) as “a mere mathematical convenience,” as opposed to a description of actual reality. Galileo learned the hard way what happens when you challenge the consensus (even when you had truth on your side). Galileo was no Meursault.

So, yeah, Scott Johnston’s Campusland is a satire. In the same way Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is a satire. Like the socialist yellow journalist who preceded him by a century, Johnston presents an allegory that is upsettingly too close to the real thing.

For those keeping score, Johnston, unlike Sinclair, is neither a socialist, yellow, nor a journalist (although in the 1980s he co-authored popular books on beer drinking and golf betting games).

Just as Sinclair vividly portrayed the awful truth of the meat packing industry, Johnston reveals the sickening reality of how the academic sausage is made.

This is where Campusland is most disheartening. It paints a picture of a future – a tomorrow – we may not want.

Way back in a time long forgotten, when I wandered the Spartan halls of high school, as much as I was dissuaded by what I read in AP English, I could always count on one thing: At least I lived in America. None of that stuff happened here.

Sadly, after reading Campusland, I can no longer make that claim.

Yet, all is not lost. I can ask my classmate to follow his muckracking predecessor’s example.

According to the Theodore Roosevelt Center website, “Sinclair sent a copy of his book to President Theodore Roosevelt. Spurred partially but not wholly by Sinclair’s bestseller, Roosevelt had the abattoirs investigated. Federal inspectors found unsanitary conditions, just as The Jungle portrayed. Not long after the publication of The Jungle, Congress passed and Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Meat Inspection Act of the same year.”

Perhaps the current occupant of the White House might appreciate a copy of Campusland courtesy of the author. It would be of great irony (wait, is that where the satire comes from?) if the book inspires the government to fix the problems exposed in Campusland.

Why?

You’ll have to read the book to discover the answer.

And – SPOILER ALERT! – along the way you may just also discover any one of a number of delightful Easter Eggs. But be careful: the ability to find those Easter Eggs will reveal more about you than about the story.

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