By Michael Hingston. Freehand, 272 pp, softcover
Back in April, the Guardian called for the death of the campus novel, claiming the genre has become too crowded, too well-trodden, with writers like Chad Harbach, Bret Easton Ellis, Jeffrey Eugenides, Donna Tartt, and Don DeLillo all shoving each other on the way to the literary rez caf. But six months ago the Guardian didn’t have its hands on Georgia Straight reviewer Michael Hingston’s satire The Dilettantes, a very funny debut that explores a whole, ridiculous new facet of the academic world: a university newspaper.
Set at Simon Fraser University over the 2008-09 school year, The Dilettantes will feel familiar to locals, particularly to anybody who attended SFU at all recently (this former SFU TA dutifully raises her hand)—places, and sometimes people, smack you in the face with recognition, a routine experience for Vancouverites when it comes to movies, less so books. The story is drolly voiced by Alex and Tracy, the features editor and the copy editor at the Peak, respectively. They and their cohort (millennials, all of ’em, if you care about that sort of thing) spend their time “working” at the Peak office, referencing pop culture, making crude (but good-natured) jokes, eating pizza, and trying to avoid pandering too much to their audience—“Our coverage itself has become ironic,” Alex realizes in horror at one point. But when a mass-media paper from the real, adult world, the Metro, starts distribution on campus, the Peak staffers realize that survival is going to require some major adaptation.
Campus novels are notorious for experimenting with life’s bigger issues within the petri dish of the university, but The Dilettantes isn’t just a microcosm of the world: it’s a microcosm of the media. At the Peak, Alex and Tracy get to take part in an idealized version of something that, when the lid comes off, performs entirely differently, to very amusing effect. And Hingston has a ball toying with what’s real and what’s not, throwing together such elements as media-studies students obsessed with simulacra, a class on films shot at SFU (Maximum Death is a particularly good title), celebrity students, campus politics, and of course, commuter papers. It sounds a bit chaotic, but happily, it all works out in the end—kinda like university, or life.