“It’s like a cross between Catch-22 and Lucky Jim for the Brexit generation,” declares a blurb on the back cover of P. J. Vanston’s 2020 comic novel Somewhere in Europe. Unfortunately, this is a promise which Vanston mostly fails to keep.
Somewhere in Europe is set at a fictional university in Wales and purports to be a satire of campus wokeness. Kevin Crump, the protagonist, is assigned to lecture at Cambrian University by his previous employer, the Foreign Office, which has packed off the stale white male to the provinces as it diversifies its workforce. The premise, the back cover tells us, is that Cambrian finds a document that supposedly grants it the power to secede from Britain and remain independently in the European Union.
This is an interesting starting point for a plot. Unfortunately, this event doesn’t even occur until we are quite deep into the book and is never really developed. The university ends up going back on the daft plan after Crump anonymously leaks evidence that it has mishandled EU funds. Meanwhile, the main campus tower spontaneously ignites, incinerating the woman revealed to be the villain of the piece—but whom we never properly meet. Before, during and after all that, the book is mostly a series of episodes meant to send up woke campus culture. There is a student from a fictional Eastern European country who turns out to be that country’s former foreign minister and likely future president who, after Crump has been sacked by Cambrian, offers him the vice-chancellorship of a university he plans to build back home. Said student also hides guns in Crump’s house. And there is a local diner that uses the leftovers from a creepy professor’s animal experimentation to feed its customers. And so on.
If this strikes you as incoherent, you are correct. The mishmash of absurd plot elements is clumsily handled. Vanston’s characterisation is a little better. Crump is an interesting hero, prone to doubt, self-pity and frustration, while yearning for a better life, somewhat like Kingsley Amis’ unlucky Jim Dixon, the ironically eponymous protagonist of Lucky Jim. But the other characters are mostly lazy caricatures.
The student Abi Rainbow is a “man-hating” radical lesbian feminist with piercings and a blue Mohican. She falsely accuses Crump of molesting both her and her child. But she is a non-character, a cliché. Fatima, a colleague whom Crump fancies, could have been an interesting character: a Muslim member of Ni Putes Ni Soumises who despises the burqa and liberal hypocrisy on the subject of Islam and gets roughed up by some Islamists at one point. But she is mostly there to express opinions about politics. In fact, all the characters serve shallow meta-purposes: either to explicate the author’s views or to caricature people and views the author doesn’t like. Even Crump himself, despite occasional glimmerings of development and personality, is often ill used by his creator.
Crump is constantly encountering some absurd situation or woke ideologue and then breaking off into a diatribe that might as well be a political essay by the author. The character disappears, enveloped by the black hole of the author’s opinions. It would not be so bad if these diatribes were consistent with the situation and the character but they aren’t. One, on the EU, full of statistics and political history, goes on for seven pages. Here is an excerpt:
Crump also remembered the dire warnings of disaster from the Bank of England, and others, if the UK didn’t sign up to the single currency—something Tony Blair wanted but which, apparently, Gordon Brown blocked on economic grounds. The Bank also predicted an economic crash immediately if Britons voted to Leave in 2016—that didn’t happen, did it?
This is editorialising, not satire or comedy.
There are some nicely done parts, though. Vanston is at his best when writing of Crump’s personal life and family history and weaving in broader comments. For example, Crump walks down the High Street of The Town and reflects on what it was like when his grandparents met there: a vibrant social and commercial centre. Now, like many such high streets, it is a derelict place, full of litter and homeless people. By having Crump meditate on his family history and his ties to the place, Vanston is able to comment—naturally and consistently with the narrative—on the deterioration of local life in recent decades and the human immiseration that has entailed. More of this would have been better.
Vanston has some good jokes too, as when Crump nearly bursts out laughing at being reminded of Al Jolson when a university audience use jazz hands instead of clapping. And, when there is a terrible car crash outside the campus:
As the crowd moved as one downhill towards the pile-up, Crump noticed the three Theology Department lecturers running past them, jostling for position.
“They say it’s a dead child!” said Ridley Crick, Christian.
“I will be there first!” said Muslim scholar and university imam, Saladin Malik. “Guide all their souls to paradise!”
“Must … celebrate … their … lives!” panted Androo Spoon, Humanist.
The characterisation is at its best when it is personal and direct. Crump’s suicide attempt after the false rape accusation, his visits to his old and ailing mum and his vigil at her deathbed are nicely, even movingly, drawn.
But the good stuff is too often smothered under the weight of the author’s opining. It is relentless. The EU rant is just the worst of many examples. Transgenderism, the burqa, the British Empire, the corruption of higher education, #MeToo, student fragility, attacks on free speech: all these and more are addressed in what is quite clearly the author’s voice. Characters and situations often disappear for a page or more.
Some of the jokes are quite cheap, too. Abi Rainbow, the intersectional radical feminist lesbian, is a butch misandrist. When annoyed by the class, Noman Ghosh, “the Indian-accented senior trans awareness trainer of uncertain gender” angrily “stared at each of these students like a Hindu demon god.” A trans man is called “Chris Cockpea.” The trans woman vice-chancellor “was basically a man in a dress” (and in possession of a baritone and a beard). And so on.
And what is it with the profuse and rancorous spews of adjectives? “The growing man-bashing #MeToo mob mentality and paedo-hysteria of now”; “the androphobic, compo-chasing, victimhood-craving vengeful #MeToo mob of now”; “the hellfire and damnation puritanical radical Jihadists”; etcetera, etcetera. Or the fact that Crump’s comrades in the anti-woke camp are all just shoehorned-in diversity stereotypes themselves? There is the gay, disabled ex-soldier; his African boyfriend; the feminist Muslim woman; the anti-Islamist Muslim man; and the female, Jewish, Tory Brexiteer. It is good to show that members of diverse groups are individuals whose opinions aren’t reducible to those of the self-professed spokespeople of whatever minorities they happen to be part of, but Vanston crams them all in ham-fistedly and barely does anything with them.
In Lucky Jim, by contrast, we do not find any authorial rants about whatever has most recently annoyed Kingsley. Instead, there are consistently well-developed characters and comic situations, drawn with exquisite economy; laugh-out-loud jokes; and even some moral seriousness. To give one example: early on, Professor Welch, the insufferable, pompous bore upon whom Jim Dixon’s career depends, is briefly distracted by one of Dixon’s comments but “After no more than a minor swerve the misfiring vehicle of his conversation had been hauled back on to its usual course”—so much said so funnily and with such panache in a single line.
Dixon develops and frees himself from the bondage of bourgeois academic provincial pomposity. He openly speaks his mind and triumphs over the idiots who have made life so miserable for him. Crump does none of this. There is an excellently rendered and passionate first-person monologue near the novel’s end, but it is an interior monologue. The various plot threads are wrapped up too conveniently as Crump heads off to Eastern Europe. His whistleblowing remains anonymous and he never openly defies his opponents in any serious way. He certainly doesn’t triumph over them, even though an open act of defiance is signalled by the inspiration Crump receives at a lecture given by a pretty obvious Jordan Peterson proxy. The book ends life-affirmingly, but there has been too little development by this point. Nonetheless, Crump is an interesting character and it is to Vanston’s great credit that, despite my issues with the book, I want to see more of his adventures.
Vanston is right on many issues. At least, I certainly agree with him on a great deal. But art should not be judged on its political content. It should be judged as art, and as art the book mostly disappoints. It is not that politics and art cannot or should not be combined (one need only turn to Orwell to see it done excellently) but that this needs to be executed well. Vanston stumbles here, with his too overt politicisation. Woke campus culture is a rich plain, which no comic novelist until now has really tilled. Unfortunately, in this first attempt, Vanston uses some pretty weak fertiliser. Alas, we still await the first great comic novel on woke campus culture, but Somewhere in Europe at least forays into the plain and sometimes does so quite well, if not always quite well enough.