Friday, October 29, 2010

"Everything aspires to the light."

From this height it was possible to see into the dream that produced the school, not mere English-envy but the yearning for a chivalric world apart from the din of scandal and cheap dispute, the hustle and schemes of modernity itself. As I recognized this dream I also sensed its futility, but so what? I loved my school no less for being gallantly unequal to our appetites - more, if anything.

After an absence of two months, I announce my triumphant return to the Unstructured Book Group! This month's selection was Tobias Wolff's Old School, three portions of which had previously appeared in The New Yorker as short stories.

The unnamed narrator is a senior (or "sixth former") on scholarship at an elite boys' prep school somewhere in New England. It is 1960-61. The school is noted for both its pretensions to meritocracy and strong identification with literature. Several times a year they play host to a Great Author and there is an accompanying writing contest for a one-on-one audience. (This year, they will be visited by Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Earnest Hemingway.) Naturally enough, the narrator has strong literary ambitions of his own and, with graduation on the horizon, wants nothing more than to win and have a chance to speak with a legend of the field. Meanwhile, he is increasingly aware of the illusionary bubble that encases the school's culture and all the things left unsaid to prop up the dream. Hard lessons will be learned when reality makes its inevitable intrusion.

The school is a transplanted Oxford vision of old bricks laced with ivy, rolling green hills, tweed, tradition, and tea (or a Ralph Lauren ad). Its scholarly, über-prep atmosphere is timeless and could fit easily on either side of the Atlantic at any time in the last century. Everything revolves around literature, and the boys spend most of their academic hours arguing with their "masters" about this or that poem or novel. Non-English teaches are relegated literally to the fringes. Despite the seniors' reflections on impending adulthood and the close of this educational stage, there is remarkably little anxiety about their futures. After all, with this school on their resume and the wealth and status enjoyed by most of their families, their solitary preoccupation with literature is, despite all efforts to pretend otherwise, a striking mark of class, gender, and racial privilege. (They are genuine, honest-to-god WASPs. The 100% real thing.) Although any bibliophile would certainly love to spend a few days in this place, the stuffiness - reminiscent of a wood-paneled library chock-full of dusty old volumes - would eventually become oppressive.

The year this story takes place in is no accident. Like the characters of Mad Men, these boys are about to emerge into a world of tumultuous changes whose distant rumbles are being heard even among themselves. The subtle exclusion of the Jewish students, for example, seems to foreshadow the increased diversification of previously restricted spaces. Feminism and the Vietnam War make their entrance in the final two chapters.

The narrator himself has some Jewish background in his family, although he himself is not Jewish. Issues of identity are beginning to trouble him, however, and in the era before widespread multiculturalism in both and life and literature, he lacks the conceptual framework to write his own story. What ends up landing him in hot water is basically the effects of conformity in the conservative, old-money monastery that is his school. The arrival on campus of some fireman due to a small, accidental blaze inspires a moment of long-buried self-awareness:
For a moment I saw this place as I had first seen it: how beautiful it was, and how odd. I felt its seclusion and how we'd come to resemble each other in that seclusion. We dressed so much alike that the inflections we did allow ourselves - tasseled loafers for the playboy, a black turtleneck for the rebel - were probably invisible to an outsider. Our clothes, the way we wore our hair, the very set of our mouths, all this marked us like tribal tattoos.
He later admits that this role of Shabby Prep he has adopted is not his own - it is merely a signifier of his identification with an elite institution he could never have afforded without his scholarship. The primary theme of Old School is how the writer finds their voice and the influence of other writers in the process. When the narrator comes across a story that reflects his own experiences, that truly speaks to him as a working class individual of Jewish background surrounded by Anglo-Saxon wealth, the vertiginous happiness at such a discovery, combined with the impending arrival of Hemingway and the chance to meet with him if I win this contest, results in the narrator committing, ironically, the Mortal Sin of Writing.

Old School is one of the most readable books I have come across in some time. It is vivid and profound, yet holds the readers interest and flies by quickly. Wolff actually has quite a lot going on in its mere 195 pages, and I encourage everyone to check out the rest of the Unstructured Book Group for their different takes on it.

Tobias Wolff's Old School was our Unstructured Group Read for the month of October. Please feel free to join us at any time! You can find a complete book list here.

Past selections:

March: Tennessee Williams, The Night of the Iguana
April: Georges Perec, Life: A User's Manual
May: Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels
June: Gabriel Josipovici, Moo Pak
July: Kenzaburo Ōe, A Personal Matter Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!
August: William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain
September: Tomás Eloy Martínez, Santa Evita


Richard said...

I agree that Old School was "readable" but disagree that it was "profound," E.L. Fay, and maintain that it pales in comparison with the likes of Robert Walser's Jakob von Gunten in terms of that whole boy-trying-to-break-out-of-a-conformist school setting bag. Of course, Walser was mad--which might account for why he's so unpredictable when compared with the straightlaced and tweedy Wolff. Anyway, glad your mini-vacation is over--I obviously need more people to argue with!

Emily said...

What I liked about this book, as a take on the boarding school theme, was how, in the final few chapters, the narrative really widens out to include the perspectives of people other than the self-involved narrator (and as you point out, those chapters also point at larger social events like feminism and the war in Vietnam). That, combined with the sometimes-funny theme of mis-reading throughout the book, took it to the next level for me - readable yes, but also subtly thought-provoking. I liked it!

Frances said...

As Emily says here, I also enjoy the way the story widens out at the end for adult viewpoints. It allows for a reinforcement of the idea that coming to an authentic narrative voice is a slippery slope where neither the young nor old are really capable of true objectivity when it comes to the self. Where lies become more interesting whether intentional or not.

Welcome back!

Eileen said...

Richard: Well, I can certainly see Old School coming across as bland when read next to a similar book. It's a nice story but really not a classic.

Emily: Yes, the narrator really is a typical adolescent in that respect - very self-involved, which was part of his problem, I think.

Frances: The book was rather funnel-shaped. He goes from this self-focused teen (like Emily said) to an adult with experience outside the narrow world of the prep school.

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