Campusland by Scott Johnston is a scathing satire of modern college life… it touches on many of the topics that are being discussed on university campuses across the nation: gender issues, racial equality, the MeToo movement, safe spaces, tenure, admissions, etc. It’s an good debut that pushes the notions of the PC movement to an extreme.
The book takes place a Devon University, a liberal arts school in the Northeast that rivals the Ivies in its prestige. Following the school calendar, Campusland relates one year of the tension and conflict of a academic grind. The plot focuses on two main characters, but a couple more come up frequently throughout. There’s Lulu, a “first-year” who is an elitist and only goes to Devon because she thinks it will improve her social media brand. Her main concerns are being seen and wearing the right designers so that she can become the next “It Girl.” Eph is an English teacher who is looking to get tenure, yet sees his main focus of literature (19th Century AmLit) being targeted as gender and racially discriminatory. Milton, yes, you can call him by his first name, is the university president. He wants to relate to the students, heck, he had a great rating on Rate-My-Professors.com. But, the position becomes arduous when he finds himself having to try to please too many people and ends up shoveling “it” in all directions.
Social media and campus progressives combine to put an wrench in Eph’s plans for tenure. He is filmed and then that video is edited as he awkwardly tries to explain his use of Twain in the curriculum. Lulu’s borderline kleptomania hurts her when she is invited to an exclusive magazine shoot of future ‘philanthropists.’ And Milton must negotiate with the Afro-American Cultural Center when they occupy his office. The plot twists several times while the characters try to see what will get them out of their conflicts…
Here’s the thing about this novel, I found some of it to be pretty darn funny and other parts were a bit uncomfortable, only because they were so painful, awkward, and at times crossing the line. It’s hard at times to see what is straight fiction and where Johnston is pushing the envelope. This is a book that will have mixed reviews and that’s natural for a book that tries to take on so much, but the point of a novel like this is that it will start discussion.
Overall, I found Johnston’s observations thought-provoking. He questions what political correctness with blinders and at all costs might do to our society. It’s a good campus novel, but I found several of the plot lines to be reminiscent of ones I’ve read before and there is a try at humor in places where I thought may have been ill-timed.
3 out of 5 stars.
Thank you to NetGalley, St. Martin’s Press, and the author for an advanced copy for review.