At one point, during the late 70s and 80s, there seemed to be a brief trend for new American novelists to give their work titles that did not seem like fiction at all. The wonderful and woefully neglected Thomas McMahon called his first novel The Principles of American Nuclear Chemistry, which must have got mis-shelved in libraries and bookshops everywhere. By which light, Arts and Sciences seems a pretty unexceptional title for a novel.

It was the first novel by Thomas Mallon (Ticknor & Fields, 1988), who had already had a couple of well-received non-fiction books published by that time, and it does display a sort of awkward self-sonsciousness that you often find in first novels. It is his campus novel, that familiar rite of passage of sex, education and trying to grow up. I remember when I was at university plotting out something very similar myself, until I realised that everyone else was doing it and I couldn’t really be bothered to carry on. If I sound dismissive of the genre as a whole, that’s because I am; most campus novels are written out of a deep and abiding ignorance of anything outside the university, and I don’t really have that much patience with a world in which the only thing that might interrupt a moronic obsession with sex is the next seminar.

But this is Thomas Mallon, and he has become one of my favourite authors of the historic novel. So let us ignore the sophomoric subtitle, ‘A Seventies Seduction’, and move on. The plot: poor postgraduate at Harvard (my heart bleeds) falls for older English bitch-queen who is not only super intelligent but super rich. He learns to ditch his hippieish past and faded jeans, goes through the trauma of growing up by exhibiting symptoms of incipient madness, and gets the girl and the grades. Okay, the writing is somewhat better than average, but oh god the story.

What saves this is that it is set very precisely in time – the winter of 1973-4, the time of the Watergate investigations, the oil shortages, the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, all of which flit across the background of the novel. And what we see of the Harvard establishment is narrow, limited, stultifying education rather than expanding it. In other words a moronic plot is painted over a very precisely realised time and place. It is not a fully realised historical novel in the manner, say, of Two Moons or Dewey Defeats Truman, but you can see that the impulse is there. So, not a great book, but a harbinger of great things.

First published at Livejournal, 15 December 2004.