Cam­pus pa­per set­ting for com­edy

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Bob Arm­strong

FOR read­ers who spent their col­lege years hang­ing around cam­pus news­pa­pers — and isn’t that every­body? — this literary de­but by Ed­mon­ton Jour­nal books colum­nist Michael Hingston may well be the Great Cana­dian Comic Novel. The Dilet­tantes is a hi­lar­i­ous por­trait of an out­sider sub­cul­ture un­der dou­ble ex­is­ten­tial threat — the char­ac­ters are both arts stu­dents and would-be print jour­nal­ists. And like all great comic nov­els, it’s some­thing more. In this case, a story of awak­en­ing from a long, irony-cov­ered slum­ber. The novel is set in the present day at The Peak, the stu­dent news­pa­per at sub­ur­ban Van­cou­ver’s Si­mon Fraser Univer­sity, while the pa­per is fac­ing cut­throat com­pe­ti­tion from the free-cir­cu­la­tion Metro. (Yes, it’s the Van­cou­ver edi­tion of the chain free­bie that meets the Kar­dashian-up­date needs of Winnipeg bus rid­ers.) Fea­tures ed­i­tor Alex, fac­ing grad­u­a­tion, wants to save The Peak, and per­haps give his univer­sity years a bit of mean­ing. Be­neath his anx­i­ety about the pa­per is a need to es­cape the de­tach­ment he’s been liv­ing with, a de­tach­ment that grows out of both pop­u­lar cul­ture and the univer­sity’s post-mod­ernist in­tel­lec­tual en­vi­ron­ment. Much of the plot fo­cuses on what hap­pens when a B.C.-born movie star de­cides to en­rol as an SFU stu­dent and be­gins to at­tract me­dia at­ten­tion to the cam­pus. But the plot is sec­ondary to Hingston’s dis­til­la­tion of the spirit of his set­ting. Hingston cap­tures the com­pet­i­tive jok­ing of a cer­tain kind of cam­pus life per­fectly. Here, for ex­am­ple, is a bit of riff­ing be­tween two Peak ed­i­tors dis­cussing a let­ter that called the pa­per’s hu­mour sec­tion “the worst thing ever.” In re­sponse, they be­gin to com­pose a list of worse things: “Hitler. Stalin. Su­per Can­cer. Stalin with a Hitler Mus­tache. Hitler if he Could Shoot Can­cer Out of His of Fin­gers. Cake that is Part Choco­late, Part Poo. A Ma­chine that Scalps Or­phans.”

It’s a funny list, in part be­cause of the ab­sur­dity and in part be­cause of the comic tim­ing, but it also does a lovely job of mock­ing the ten­dency of an­gry writ­ers at cam­pus news­pa­pers to in­voke Hitler. Hingston’s de­scrip­tions of the po­lit­i­cal-cul­tural en­vi­ron­ment of SFU pro­vide food for thought and fod­der for laughs. “Here the trick was car­ing too much, or pre­tend­ing to, or try­ing con­vince your­self that you did,” he writes. “It was a bumper-sticker arms race; it was a pris­oner’s dilemma, if the pris­oner also sub­scribed to Adbusters.” Or: “He (Alex) ma­jored in hu­man­i­ties, which was kind of like English, only you watched more movies and could write your fi­nal es­say about a pic­ture of a vase.” The Dilet­tantes may not res­onate with peo­ple who never en­dured staff meet­ings and pro­duc­tion nights or who did labs in­stead of term pa­pers. But then again, you don’t need to have been a his­tory grad­u­ate stu­dent or wouldbe co­me­dian to en­joy Kings­ley Amis’s Lucky Jim or Keith Water­house’s Billy Liar. Hingston has writ­ten an el­egy for youth and a kick in the pants for his gen­er­a­tion and for gen­er­a­tions old enough to re­mem­ber us­ing Ex­acto knives and beeswax to put the news­pa­per to­gether. Winnipeg writer Bob Arm­strong is a for­mer ed­i­tor of the Red River Col­lege Re­flec­tor and Univer­sity of Cal­gary

Gaunt­let.

The Dilet­tantes By Michael Hingston Free­hand Books, 267 pages, $22

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.