The main character, Eph Russell, a middling, well-meaning English professor, has taken a year-long leave of absence from Devon University (a fictionalized Yale), where he was falsely accused of sexual assault by a freshman, put through a bogus Title IX trial, and watched as his beloved Huckleberry Finn was trashed by campus social justice warriors in a staged protest. In the meantime, Russell has taken a part-time teaching job at a university in Alabama. The students there are “earnest” and “likable”; by comparison with the Ivy League, there is “less entitlement, and no one” — blessedly — “was confused about what pronouns or which bathrooms to use.” In other words, this is a place where real learning can happen, and where Eph can educate his students about the realist tradition in American literature, beginning with Mark Twain, whose characters, Russell explains to a group of well-mannered students,
used the language of nineteenth-century rural America, some of it quite colorful, and some of it even offensive, at least to the modern ear. At the time, this was the equivalent of a literary earthquake, and we can follow the technique’s lineage through the Realists right to Hemingway and all the way to modern writers like Tom Wolfe.
Saying Wolfe’s name in the same breath as Twain’s is perhaps giving him too high a compliment. But Johnston does owe him: Campusland is in many ways an update of Wolfe’s 2004 novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, a satire of campus life that was, at once, creepy and cruel enough to tank Wolfe’s career, or to prove it had already sunk. Johnston’s book inherits all these qualities. Worst of all, for a satirist taking on the great American topic of college life, Johnston, like Wolfe, is just not very funny.
The novel amounts not so much to a satire as to a kind of anti-PC morality tale. Hailing from the South, Eph Russell, up for tenure at Devon, wants very much to join this East Coast world of high learning and culture, though he does have his reservations. He agrees with a lot of what the campus activists are saying, sure, but their methods — they seem a bit much. So Russell tries to keep his head down and just teach Twain. But keeping your head down won’t save you, and Russell is soon beset. Red Wheeler, a seventh-year trust-fund pothead and leader of the progressive student alliance, stages a protest of Russell’s class due to the professor’s inclusion of Huckleberry Finn, a book that one student progressive notices, as if for the first time, has “the ‘N-word’ […] all over it.” Another adds, helpfully, “Seriously, bro. Book’s a trigger fest.” The protest goes viral on social media, of course, which is good for Red, because he is involved in a feud with the leader of the black student progressives over who is more woke. Too bad for Russell, though: his tenure is now in trouble.
Then, worse happens. Freshman Lulu Harris, a gossip girl from the Upper East Side, develops a crush on Russell for reasons totally unclear to the reader — because he’s good at lecturing on Twain? She makes a pass during office hours. Specifically, she straddles his lap and plants her mouth on his “like a suckerfish, tongue thrusting down his throat.” Russell throws her off and apologizes. She’s attractive, but he has a girlfriend! Spurned, Lulu gets drunk at a party, has sex with someone but can’t remember it, stumbles her way back to the dorm, and bruises her face. There, her busybody RA demands a name: clearly Lulu was assaulted, and it’s actually against the rules for her not to name her assailant. Generally annoyed, and apparently conscienceless, Lulu names Russell.
What ensues is entirely predictable since Johnston, like Wolfe, works deliberately with stereotypes. All the characters, save for Eph Russell, are driven by cynicism and opportunism; none of them holds a view out of principle; all see progressive politics as a means of accruing cultural capital or of staving off entry into the real world. It’s better for professors like Eph, the book suggests, to move to the heartland or back to the South, to teach where students are respectful, and where (this is really in the novel) people won’t call you patriarchal for holding the door open for them.
Such a plot could work as satire; there is, of course, plenty that happens on a college campus worthy of humorous treatment. But for satire to work, there needs to be something like truth in it, as well as a little love and good faith. Campusland has none of this. Mainly the novel shows contempt for college students and progressives, making no attempt to understand them on their own terms. This failure of imagination is evident in Johnston’s treatment of Lulu, which owes a special debt to Wolfe. In I Am Charlotte Simmons, the eponymous character, also a freshman girl, is subjected, as the Washington Post describes, to “700 pages of ritual sexual humiliation by a Jock, a Nerd and a Frat Guy.” In Campusland, there’s a touch of masochism to the creepy fantasy. Again, and with feeling: a treacherous 18-year-old wants to have sex with a charmless professor and then, when spurned by him, casually ruins his life. Someone is being satirized here, but it is not, alas, a college student.
Like Wolfe, Johnston attempts to get inside the heads of college students like Lulu and Red, but he is incapable of giving these characters or their kind anything like individuality, voice, or style. They speak and think in the sort of argot a middle-aged male might assume millennials use. When Lulu and a friend from the same Manhattan social circle are discussing whether to hook up with the guys in the student center, Lulu’s friend comments: “There are certain ponds in which the fishing is better.” Later, after his staged protest of Huckleberry Finn, Red Wheeler gathers a group of student progressives and exclaims: “Justice was on the menu today, my friends. Serving size, large!” Who talks like this on a college campus, or anywhere else? The only person who doesn’t speak and think in such a way is, well, the leader of the black progressives, Jaylen. Here’s a taste of his lingo: “And while we at it, where does this bitch get off using a ball and chain? That’s slave shit. She’s appropriatin’!”
It has at least been said of Tom Wolfe that he visited several colleges to pick up the language of the young. If Johnston has even stepped foot on a campus in years, he certainly wasn’t listening very hard.
Which leads to the question: who is this novel for? It shares many of the worries about PC culture expressed in columns penned by conservatives like David Brooks or Bret Stephens, who routinely concern troll about social justice warriors on college campuses. Buried deep in the book is an obscure reference to Leon Kass, the former chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics, who took as evidence of the decay of modern society people’s habit of licking their ice cream cones in public. Maybe five readers would giggle at this reference, and they all write columns in New York or the beltway.
One wonders why these folks are so worried about today’s campuses. College students, after all, have much less cultural and political capital than they are given credit for. Though they are framed as being the most radical political demographic in the country, their age group, 18–29, is consistently ranked last in voter turnout. And if the specter of a new millennial left (which, in Campusland, looks like the meeting of Stalinism and affluenza) actually were to haunt the halls of academe, Johnston is probably right to suggest that those halls would be in humanities departments such as English. But those departments are hemorrhaging students and money, while the fastest growing majors are exercise science and nursing — fields where no one is reading Rules for Radicals.
All of which is to say that Johnston shouldn’t worry so much. Take it from someone who has attended college this millennium.
Joseph Hogan is a writer and fact-checker. His work has appeared in The Nation, The Point, and elsewhere.