Sep

9

Magazine Preview II: Chick Lit Hum

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After being freed from a Lerner closet, the first
Blue and White issue is hitting newsstands near you. To whet you appetite, here’s another morsel from the issue: Hannah Lepow looking at a teen fiction novel’s take on Columbia.

In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles must choose between infinite glory and the simple pleasures of home. In Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles, in the wake of a great tragedy, holds the living to the standards of the dead. These texts establish the moral framework that shapes not only contemporary conceptions of ethics and justice, but also provides the subject matter of Literature Humanities discussion questions. Another saga that may prove equally valuable to Columbia students in informing the way they engage with the world around them is Megan McCafferty’s tween novel Charmed Thirds.

The swift-footed Jessica Darling, fictional Columbia sophomore, is the protagonist of McCafferty’s novel. Darling’s presence within the canon began with the publication of McCafferty’s first novel, Sloppy Firsts, and has only solidified with the release each new installment, including the most recent Perfect Fifths. In Charmed Thirds, which is neither the second nor the fourth novel in the series, the reader catches up with Darling at Columbia and is made privy to her housing woes, her career frustrations, and her forays into Columbia’s social ecology, when, in an almost certainly inadvertent reimagining of the parable of the Trojan horse, Darling decides to wear a Barnard T-shirt to the West End.

“Dear Hope,” Jessica writes to her best friend from high school in the opening passage of the book, “Whoever said that you can’t go home again was wrong. You can go home again. Just don’t be surprised when it totally sucks.” But Darling has left home only nominally; she joins no activities, makes few new friends and spends the majority of her college tenure enmeshed in a complicated long-distance relationship with her high school boyfriend Marcus. Despite her realization that going home totally sucks, Darling never stops trying. The novel’s structure also belies Darling’s rejection of the notion of Columbia as home: the plot spans from her freshman summer through her graduation, but is narrated during school breaks, when Jessica returns to her fictional New Jersey hometown and recounts her college adventures to her high school friends. A student of the Core might be tempted to conflate Darling’s intellectual wandering with the actual wandering of Odysseus, but even Odysseus made friends along the way.

“My friends at school sometimes make my brain hurt,” Darling complains, trying to justify herself. “Sometimes it’s fun to talk about hairstyles instead of, say, string theory.”

Still, Darling does engage in the sort of Core-centric posturing of which nearly everyone is both guilty and victim. “I have read Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Nietzsche. I have listed to Josquin des Prez, Monteverdi, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Verdi, Wagner, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky. I’ve analyzed works by Raphael, Michelangelo,” she boasts, seemingly unaware—or worse, unconcerned—that literally every one of her Columbia College classmates has done the same.

At Columbia, as Darling fails to realize, qualities such as self-awareness and sanity are more rare than a working knowledge of Raphael, and are therefore more likely to inspire the admiration that she seeks. For instance, while her description of Columbia housing is fairly accurate–the phrase “shittiest shithole on campus” is used repeatedly–it lacks the pride of ownership that would cultivate camaraderie with her fellow LL C residents. Darling picks and chooses what she considers her Columbia experience: she doesn’t recognize the shithole as her shithole, and yet, is ostentatious about her belief that the Lit Hum syllabus is hers and hers alone.

While Odysseus wanders for twenty years, Darling’s return to Ithaka only takes five semesters. Junior-year Darling, for the moment bereft of her high-school boyfriend, makes a group of unlikely friends who all stayed in the LL C for winter break. She embarks on a relationship with a first-year “who still possesses that obnoxiously brainy hubris people develop when they have been told by every teacher since kindergarten that they’re the smartest student ever ever ever.” As Darling discovers, the Columbia experience may be one that’s characterized by pretension, loneliness, and lowered expectations–it may even take place in Wallach–but it still beats the Sisyphean struggle to return to childhood, to a home that no longer exists.

– Hannah Lepow

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