Perhaps the strongest constant from generation to generation of Harvard undergraduates is their belief in the university’s own propaganda. Walking down Mount Auburn Street in Cambridge, Lisa Pliscou’s distressed heroine, Miranda Walker, keeps muttering reassurances to (herself): “Cheer up. You lead a charmed existence, remember? The best and the brightest, right?” But I don’t remember any of the Harvard undergraduates I taught in the 1970s being as aggressively vacuous as the 1980s examples with which Pliscou peoples “Higher Education,” her first novel. The first concept that we see Miranda ponder is breast size; the first publication she considers reading is the Italian edition of Vogue.
But “Higher Education” is not really satire; it has too good a time splashing about in its own shallowness. We are steadily reminded that Miranda--an English major from California--is not only brilliant (Phi Beta Kappa), blond and athletic, but a wit, too. The reminders come from the other characters (“God, you’re funny and bitchy”), and it’s a good thing, too, since her own utterances reach a high point of cleverness when she responds to someone who says, “Put yourself in my shoes,” by saying, “I hate Topsiders.”
Pliscou is working in the same genre as Jay McInerney’s recent “Story of My Life"--the Overprivileged First-Person Whine. Miranda is endlessly fatigued and abused by everyone’s insensitivity, bad taste and stupidity. She notices someone has “got little glutinous particles of cereal stuck between his teeth"--a sure sign of moral depravity.
There are many men in her life--Jackson, Richard, Michael, Dean, Gerard--and for the most part they are indistinguishable. There’s a point being made here, no doubt, but there’s a difference between making a point and providing the literary pleasure that comes with individual voices and realized personalities.
Miranda sleeps with some of the men but has trouble staying friends with them afterwards. This relates to her inability to feel: “I look out the window at the white snowy streets, wondering why it is I don’t seem to feel like crying.” We’re supposed to understand that her wit is a defense mechanism, and to see her as a sort of Sylvia Plath in running shoes. But the truth is that when she’s making her lonely jog along the Charles, one would rather trip her than cheer her on or up. The little epiphany that starts her on the road to feelings-recovery is as unbelievable as it is predictable.
“Higher Education” is told mostly through dialogue, some of which seems to repeal the laws of physics, going by as it does in an interminable flash:
“I thought you said you hated olives.”
“Now I do.”
“Besides, they ran out of brownies.”
One can’t expect Miranda and Jackson (the literary one of the males) to be Beatrice and Benedick, but they’re not even David and Maddie. Pliscou writes the occasional springy sentence, but much more often her narrative stretches are larded with affective minutiae: “I find my favorite Bic fine-point in an inner pocket, along with a couple of pieces of sugarless gum and a lipstick I thought I’d lost weeks ago.” Perhaps there’s a point to be made by this, too, but I don’t care.
There was a time when undergraduates argued about the existence of God and the state of the world. I’m sure they still do. But Miranda and her roommate, Jessica, fight only about why one of them has borrowed the other’s “Christian Dior twelve-dollar lipstick.” One sometimes wants to shout at them to forget the Christian Dior twelve-dollar lipstick and go excite themselves in the library with a little Dickens or Shelley. They wouldn’t listen, but you, gentle reader, are different, of course; and the advice of this reviewer is to skip “Higher Education” and go browsing in the stacks.