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How I Won a Nobel Prize by Julius Taranto: satire of anti-wokeness walks a fine line

Author depicts university as a cartoonishly evil institution staffed by affirmative action deniers, where the syllabus includes ‘dead white men only’

How I Won a Nobel Prize
How I Won a Nobel Prize
Author: Julius Taranto
ISBN-13: 978-1035006830
Publisher: Picador
Guideline Price: £16.99

Academia has its share of deplorable people. That’s hardly a revelation. But Julius Taranto’s masterful satire might be the first book to propose sticking all the “chauvinists, harassers, genuine rapists”, racists, anti-Semites, and right-wing provocateurs on an island in the Atlantic, a kind of Frongoch for wandering hands and bad takes. Welcome to Rubin Institute Plymouth (RIP). Please feel free to carry mace.

Into this billionaire-funded pervert’s university comes Helen, a gifted graduate student with “a reasonable chance of saving the world from climate change”. She is here by necessity, caught in the wake of a scandal involving her mentor which compelled his, shall we say, rapid institutional relocation. Yet the potential of completing her work outweighs the negatives, or so Helen initially convinces herself. She is in that way the archetypal academic, one obsessively dedicated to science above politics, above money, and even above her idealistic partner Hew, with whom she enjoys an ambiguous state of “Schrödinger’s wedlock”.

The punchy chapters which follow chart how the institute slowly begins to compromise Helen’s values. It’s all played for cringy laughs until it’s not. The author depicts RIP as a cartoonishly evil institution staffed by affirmative action deniers and “red-pilled historians”, one where the syllabus includes “dead white men only” and the campus is dominated by the “repugnant schlong” of an overcompensating tower which is, of course, “known as the Endowment”. Beneath the satire, however, Taranto displays a seamless ability to change gears from broad comedy involving questionable faculty – is that R Kelly at the foie gras? – to the more serious implications of housing this many abusers in the same place.

Indeed, it seems appropriate to antagonise the fictional RIP with a trigger warning for pompous men behaving despicably (though, on the more serious side, the institute’s awfulness is underscored by a rape, which is discussed though not described, and by another physically intimidating abuse of a power differential which clearly reaches the level of assault). Thus Taranto’s quite brilliant debut, essentially a Philip Roth book told in the form of a Warren Zevon song, is not going to be for everyone. That said, if you have ever attended or worked in a university, you’re likely to recognise a lot of what’s going on here.