Apr 11, 2024, 06:29AM

The Book I Read

Unless you’re a sociologist, skip Caroline O’Donoghue’s pedestrian The Rachel Incident. What year is it (#488)?

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Earlier this week I wrote about Michael Maiello’s essay about people who don’t read. He concluded: “I’ll say, if somebody tells you that they don’t have time to read that you should not be impressed with their importance. They are not telling you how busy they are, but that they are lazy and incurious.” I’m going back to Maiello because it’s, at least to me, a disgusted and despairing bullseye on this segment of popular culture, and unlike music and film—also at a nadir—which I believe, and hope, will soon have an exciting renaissance, the publishing industry, by all accounts, is cooked. Reading is more “ambitious,” and it’s difficult to believe that companies like Random House, say, will turn altruistic and go on a hiring spree to replace all those who’ve been laid off. The money isn’t there.

Maiello writes about “busy” people who read “summaries” of books—reading time: five minutes—rather than taking the “effort” to complete a given title. As a daily reader—always print, not audio, because I still like the feel and it’s much easier to give a challenging paragraph another go—I finish most of the novels I start, even it’s not on the level of, say, Jonathan Coe, Thomas Mallon or Fredrik Backman.

A couple of weeks ago I lumbered through Caroline O’Donoghue’s critically acclaimed The Rachel Incident, and didn’t see what the fuss about. The putative protagonist—like the author, from Cork, Ireland—is one of the most loathsome “heroines” I’ve come across in a long time. Fiction’s filled with flawed, and disagreeable, main characters, but Rachel Murray, who recounts her life in 2010, when the Irish economy was in the dumps and she’s finishing classes at a mediocre university, is so narcissistic, mean and grubby, especially to her suddenly-struggling parents and two brothers, as well as other people she uses as stepping stones for career advancement, that I didn’t give a hoot what happens to her by the end of book. Hit by a car? Knifed by a thug outside a café? Bingo. That she achieves, a decade later, a level of domestic happiness and journalistic success didn’t elicit a “good for her!” reaction from me, just the confirmation that I’d never recommend The Rachel Incident to anyone.

However, despite the lazy prose, littered with “acceptable” cliches, Rachel’s recollections from that miserable and creepy year of 2010 was of some interest, as the habits and disposable campus culture was so different—for worse and better—than when I was in college during the mid-1970s. Rachel and cohorts gossip about the size of Victorian Literature professor Fred Byrne’s dick—the married Byrne is sexually omnivorous, and rebuffs Rachel’s advances, favoring the company of her roommate James Devlin (the book’s most jolly and funny character)—and luridly recount their latest out-in-the-open-air “hookup.” There’s no conversation or debate about literature of any kind, or current events, which would’ve been inconceivable decades ago: inevitably there was “locker room” bullshit, but also spirited (if sometimes pretentious) disagreements about the merits of Joyce, Keats, Dickens and the French Revolution. Two of my friends had read The Odyssey and The Iliad in the original Greek, and that was rare, but not out of the question, among 18-year-olds in the 1970s.

Given the time, gay culture is celebrated in O’Donoghue’s book; definitely not common at college campuses in the sometimes “libertine” 1970s. I remember a fellow named Bruce—a friendly pot dealer my freshman year—coming to my office at the college paper, and, almost whispering, asked for an article about a club for gay men and women he was starting. We did run a story, and I thought it was audacious of Bruce for “coming out.

As for student-professor affairs, no doubt they occurred when I was at JHU, but were clandestine. I do remember seeing a stunningly attractive woman in my freshman class hanging out with a teaching assistant (never saw her again after a month), and at night, passing by at my parking attendant job at the Faculty Club, a handsome swimmer was always escorted to the athletic swimmer by an older man. I raised an eyebrow, wondering what the pair was up to. I told my friend Howie, and he chided my naivete, saying, “That’s just an exceptionally weird boning-fest.”

Another time, my roommate Mark and I got a ride from a senior from Baltimore to Manhattan—we saw the notice on a bulletin board, and just had to chip in with gas money—and the three of got along well, until “Bill” threw in a monkey wrench, saying how the previous night at a frat party he was the fifth of six guys in a “train” with a drunk Goucher student. Mark and I just looked at each other, agog, at the nonchalant cruelty; and that must be less common today. By the way, “Bill” was a very successful entrepreneur after graduating, and must think back on his fortune that “digital footprints” didn’t exist when he was 21.

The photo above was taken on a spring day on the JHU campus—when it was half the size of today’s—at an afternoon concert. I think it’s an artifact of “simpler times” (which really weren’t “simpler,” just different) but as I never visit colleges today maybe it’s not all that dissimilar.

Take a look at the clues to figure out the year: BOAC is absorbed by British Air; Happy Days debuts on ABC; Soviet company Lada starts selling cars in the UK; the IRA bombs Brook’s Club in London; Oxford starts admitting women to its colleges; John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is published, as is John Hawke’s Death Sleep; Elizabeth Banks is born and Donald Crisp dies; the Cleveland Indians host a “Ten Cent Beer Night” and forfeit the game after melees occur; Olivia Colman is born and Vittorio De Sica dies; the Oakland A’s had a stellar team and more than 2500 people showed up for home games; Mick Fleetwood invites Lindsey Buckingam and Stevie Nicks to join Fleetwood Mac; Hillary Swank is born and Agnes Moorehead dies; and Queen open for Mott the Hoople in Denver.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023


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