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The Bellwether Revivals depicts strife on campus at Cambridge

Benjamin Wood's compulsively readable debut novel may be overly long but it captures youthful hedonism and folly.
Benjamin Wood's weighty debut novel The Bellwether Revivals is set at Cambridge University. Getty Images
Benjamin Wood's weighty debut novel The Bellwether Revivals is set at Cambridge University. Getty Images

The campus novel has traditionally focused on university life while gently poking fun at its attendant stigmas and pretensions. Mary McCarthy’s 1951 novel The Groves of Academe is generally regarded as the precursor but, three years later, Kingsley Amis would up the satire and usher in class conflict for the classic, still-sparkling Lucky Jim. Acknowledging a debt to Amis, David Lodge’s Campus Trilogy continued in the 1970s and 1980s to lampoon bumptious academics.

The character in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin tried to stay afloat on an American campus after surviving and attempting to forget what he calls the “Hitler war”. In contrast, Jack Gladney in Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise is a specialist in Hitler studies and so depends on the Führer for his livelihood (the joke, though, is that Gladney can’t speak German). But in recent years we have seen a sea-change, with authors preferring to foul the rarefied air of academia by singling out more serious character flaws in its practitioners or highlighting the less tolerant judgement of its pious gatekeepers. Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000) explores the fallout after a professor is unjustly charged with racism. JM Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999) deals with a professor who loses his job and his standing after seducing a student. This is a significant tightening of the moral reins when compared to the slack, almost nonexistent grip that controlled earlier books – we think of the languid fug of permissiveness that permeates Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man (1975), in which a promiscuous professor sleeps his way around the campus, cavorting with staff and students.

Certain critics have made a distinction. The campus novel primarily concerns faculty. The antics of students are covered in the varsity novel. The prime example of the latter is Donna Tartt’s masterful debut The Secret History (1992), a critical and commercial success that inevitably spawned several imitators, the most notable being Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, both for how much it imitates and how much it lies in its shadow. Now, in a similar vein, comes another first novel, Benjamin Wood’s The Bellwether Revivals. This time we are in Cambridge, or rather at it. By centring on students rather than faculty – specifically the farce of faculty conventions – the novel is, like Tartt’s, essentially character-driven. Making the novel work means creating characters that are plausible and charismatic enough to carry it. Wood’s novel is weighty and so he sets himself a challenge. Fortunately, in the main, he pulls it off, at times triumphantly.

Our protagonist is 21-year-old Oscar Lowe who, as a nursing home assistant, also happens to be the university outsider. He meets two students, the Bellwether siblings Iris and her brother Eden, and when he falls for Iris he is drawn into a world he was previously locked out of. Wood opens the portals for an awestruck Oscar and the rapt reader, regaling us with ancient interiors, lavish balls and summer punt rides and picnics. Oscar gets to know “The Bellwethers and the flock” – the rest of the group comprising fellow students Marcus, Yin and Jane (Pessl’s coterie also had a nickname, the Bluebloods). These aren’t impoverished students who have to scrimp and save to get by but privileged rich kids. Yin drives a BMW, Jane a Land Rover. “We’re a pretty closed circle most of the time,” Oscar is told. He is admitted into that circle, but his non-student status, not to mention his social status, keeps him on the periphery – an old literary technique but a useful one as Oscar is rendered a better observer.

Iris explains that she and Eden are also outsiders “on the fringes of things but deliberately so”. However, it is Eden that is the true oddball. Waspish, condescending and maddeningly argumentative (“he’s inherited his father’s flair for the dialectical”), he is also supremely intelligent (“there isn’t enough room in his head for all the things he knows about”) and a gifted musician. When we meet the Bellwether parents it becomes clear Eden was pampered as a child so as to channel his precociousness (“passing his Grade 8 music exam when he was nine”) into a concrete talent. Now Iris is afraid that his exasperatingly idiosyncratic nature has curdled into a dangerous complex. Eden hypnotises Oscar with his music and drives a nail through his hand, which Oscar only feels when the music stops. This leads to loftier claims and more entrenched delusions of grandeur: soon Eden believes that by holding a series of “revivals” he can heal the sick through the power of his organ-playing. Oscar arranges a meeting between Eden and a renowned American psychologist, Herbert Crest, who is dying from a brain tumour. Crest plans to analyse Eden to ascertain whether he is suffering from narcissistic personality disorder; Eden, though, has his own agenda, and wants to cure Crest of his cancer. As Eden becomes more convinced of the efficacy of his powers of healing, Oscar finds the plan he devised to keep him in check coming apart at the seams and has to take action before Eden destroys himself and those around him.

Wood employs Tartt’s trope of having a prologue (here, fittingly, a prelude) that alludes to future disaster. Not all readers will approve of such an approach and, in a way, it is akin to one character’s view on jigsaws: “The picture’s already on the box – where’s the mystery?” The Bellwether Revivals contains a devastating denouement but many of the 400 pages spent getting there could have been trimmed. Wood is prone to lingering too long in scenes, as if unaware that he has already clinched a moment or capped a character trait. The most fully realised character is Eden but, again, he will not be to everyone’s taste.

Arrogant and snobbish (a speech about “dossing down with the proletariat” in NHS hospitals is particularly loathsome), we occasionally fail to see how he mesmerises his hangers-on. Similarly, both Bellwethers and flock can come across as precious and pretentious, leading us to wonder why black sheep Oscar would want to be included.

But Wood excels in two areas. Firstly, the them-and-us social divide is extremely effective. Oscar loves Iris but also recognises she is safely cocooned in her ivory tower from the harshness of the real world, with “the crash mat of her inheritance to fall back on”. In one scene Oscar, increasingly disconnected, watches the group holding their sherry glasses, one hand cupped underneath the base, and it reminds him of how his builder father “used his free hand as an ashtray when he smoked indoors”. He meets Mrs Bellwether, who “looked at Oscar as if he were one of her abstract paintings that she was training her eyes to appreciate”. Wood’s other great achievement is in making music ring true on the page. There is the odd bum note in the form of overdone imagery (can a piano really sound “frostbitten”?) and cloying emotion (“the beat of the music seemed to lock itself to the beat of his heart”) but otherwise, and especially during the “revival” scenes, the writing remains virtuosic: “This was an energetic music, angry and contagious, something feverish and knife-sharp. It was music like gushing water, like frantic animals being herded on a hillside, like all of the conversations in the world being spoken at once, like an ocean prising itself apart, like two great armies converging on each other.”

At the end of one riff, all “punchy chords” and “puffs of melody”, Wood gives up on description, stating simply that “the music was its own language”.

The Bellwether Revivals, and for that matter all modern varsity novels, have an antecedent in Brideshead Revisited. It would be an overstatement to suggest that Wood does for Cambridge what Evelyn Waugh does for Oxford but, to give him his due, he accurately captures, or recreates, that similar youthful hedonism and folly, and Eden is as offbeat and infuriating a creation as Sebastian Flyte. Cynics may roll their eyes at the déjà-vu of dreaming spires and soft-focus opulence; others will just bask in the nostalgia or otherworldliness it engenders. Wood’s own original stamp is his treatment of that brittle boundary between genius and madness, and its inventiveness and execution makes this debut a compulsive read.

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.

Updated: July 28, 2012 04:00 AM