Thursday, June 21, 2012

old school

Although I really enjoyed Wolff's writing and the boarding school setting, Old School left me disappointed. 

It was short, which I liked, as the story didn't require more than those 200 or so pages. But even with that reasonable length, I'll admit that I skimmed a little. I felt no emotional connection to the characters, and the narrator's lack of guilt or shame or any other feasible emotion made him difficult to relate to at the end. And speaking of the end, I found it very strange that the last chapter was devoted to a character we'd barely met (and thus, didn't care about at all).

The school, though, is a writer's dream. It's an elite boarding school where most of the boys want to be writers and writing competitions are anticipated the way other schools anticipate football or basketball season. This is partially because the school invites celebrated authors to the school throughout the year for readings and discussions. Before the author arrives, all the boys are invited to submit stories or poems to a contest and the winner is chosen by the coming author. Then, the winning boy gets a private talk with the author when they arrive. In the course of the book, there are contests for (and winners chosen by) Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway.

The discussion of the authors was always interesting and even once made me laugh out loud. If you've ever read Hemingway, I hope you'll see the hilarity in this wonderful passage:

We even talked like Hemingway characters, though in travesty, as if to deny our discipleship: That is your bed, and it is a good bed, and you must make it and you must make it well. Or: Today is the day of meatloaf. The meatloaf is swell. It is swell but when it is gone the not-having meatloaf will be tragic and the meatloaf man will not come anymore” (14).

But when the writers arrived and there were scenes showing them interacting with the boys and faculty of the school, I was annoyed. It just doesn't seem fair to Frost, Rand, and Hemingway. I'm sure Wolff did his research and the way he had them act was consistent with what I've learned about them myself, but I just didn't like it. It felt like he was stuffing words in their mouth. And while I haven't read Ayn Rand and don't have much desire to read her either, Wolff's depiction of her seemed particularly mean. His bias was clear. And more than that, the writers always seemed more like characters than real people. They didn't talk naturally at all. Every sentence they spoke felt quote-worthy (and so in my eyes, very stiff and fake).

Because I really liked Wolff's writing though, I hope to read him again sometime.

TITLE: Old School
AUTHOR: Tobias Wolff
PUBLICATION DATE: 4 November 2003
VERDICT: 2/5 stars.

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