Wed | Sep 18, 2019

Society’s struggle to find meaning

Published:Sunday | March 31, 2019 | 12:08 AM

C.J. Farley’s Around Harvard Square is a witty and artful narrative of a society on the crossroads of change. In one of the most prestigious universities, values collide, and those on the fringes of society go mainstream. As Harvard University goes, so does the wider society, maybe, in reverse order. What is certain is that a new Zeitgeist is poised to supplant centuries-old traditions.

Protagonist Tosh Livingston, a Jamaican teen, recalls his freshman year with a comic flair that is imaginatively colourful, and his sidekicks, Meera and Lao, lend a cosmopolitan veneer that sets the tone for more than a clash of ideas.

Around Harvard Square is Farley’s ‘sous rature,’ a definitive commentary on society’s struggle for meaning that is obfuscated in deftly crafted language and imagery.

Volumes of banter and levity do little to sway Farley’s work from its philosophical bearing. Indeed, there is enough epistemological enquiry for a lifetime of reflection.

Still, we savour those light moments. Livingston’s musings are as funny as they get.

“I was going to Harvard, but in reality my ass was ashy and broke, and not broke like white-people broke ... I mean Black broke, like the lights in my house got turned off broke, like eating sardines for dinner again broke …”

And in one over-the-top comedic exchange with his room-mate, Lao, we are left in stitches.

“I woke up in the dark later that night and the mattress above me was rocking.”

Livingston compares the sounds “to the intensity of the grunting during a long rally at a Women’s Grand Slam Tennis Final.”

The dialogue is riveting: “You woke me up. You were moving around so much I thought the top bunk was going to collapse. What are you doing up there?”

His Asian friend retorts, “What you don’t j--k off in America?”

“Of course, but we don’t talk about it ... . Learn the rules!”

But again, Around Harvard Square is anything but chatter.

There is the perennial spectre of race and gender politics. Of the former, Livingston has it all figured out:

“Sometimes, when you’re talking to certain white people, they’ll say micro aggressively racist stuff, like they are probing your defences. If you call them out in their shit, they’ll be on their guard around you from then on out, and who knows what they are saying behind your back. If you say nothing, the micro aggressions go macro and pretty soon you can never say anything because you’ve let too much go ...”

More complex

Campus life proves far more complex than race and gender relations.

The new students learn that they must peer into the mind of others. They are reminded of Professor Bell’s counsel, “People from different religious faiths, political parties, economic groups, racial background, or gender identifications can look at the same set of facts and draw radically different conclusions about what it all means.”

They must adapt lest they become irrelevant

“This is Examined Life,” students read, “a journey, a quest up and down the forking paths your lives could take.” And a touch of Eastern teachings lends mystique to the learning experience: “The Book of Tao tells us, The Way that is planned is not that …”

But for all life’s vicissitudes, they must strive toward individuation as inscribed in the biblical adage scratched into the stall door, “For thou has made him a little lower than angels, and has crowned him with glory ad honour.”

Livingston and friends navigate choppy waters. Campus life is overly challenging. They compete for a writing position in Harpoon, a campus publication defined by its edgy, dark humour. It is a gruelling, exhausting undertaking that leaves them compromised and vulnerable.

But there is something inviting about their struggle to fit in, to find meaning in their creative output. They learn fast, absorbing every word: “When you put out something political in a joke, it’s less threatening. But in a way it’s more threatening because jokes can spread like diseases. Most people won’t share political pamphlets, but they’ll share a joke. That’s the purpose of art – you slip in messages that they say you can’t say.”

They learn that they must throw their hat into the ring, be daring and thick-skinned; that they could garner something useful from Spooner, a brash young man who sits precariously at the helm of Harpoon: “People fear other races, other cultures and others. They are afraid they will say something racist or sexist or homophobic or, worst of all, some phobic that they haven’t come up with yet so there is no way to guard against it.” They listen, attentively, “It’s funny when someone slips on a banana peel – not funny when someone falls on a padded mat. If you have safe spaces and political correctness you can’t have pain and you can’t have humour. I don’t want to go to a college like that, and I don’t want the Harpoon to become like that.”

And as students of a philosophy class taught by an eccentric personality dubbed ‘Chair,’ they must dive intellectually into the labyrinth of existence. It is here that “tragedy is comedy, madness is genius and life is a joke”

Around Harvard Square speaks to a society in the throes of fast-paced transition. As conservatism buckles under pressure from a liberal agenda, some, even left-of-centre sympathisers, begin to wonder if the word ‘liberal’ is a misnomer; that maybe liberalism is a skewed form of conservatism, equally guarded and intolerant; and that liberalism’s intersectionality, an idealised concept of humanity, is delusional. Was it not on a stall door that a penis was drawn along with the words, “Ubersectionality will F—k yr azz?”

Throughout, identity politics run amok.

“Where have they been for the last century? Rich, white guys are the last people it’s okay to mock, am I right? I would give any ball sack not to be a white man. We’re about to be a demographic minority and we get no support,” one Harpoon member argues.

He is up against liberals, pontificating, and beating their chest in a zero-sum confrontation.

The struggle for control is up for grabs and Farley reminds us that ultimately seizing power can be delicate, calculative, and even brazen.

Livingston and friends, not unlike the wider electorate, are merely pawns in a game of chess.

Around Harvard Square by C.J. Farley

© Copyright 2019 C.J. Farley

Publisher: Akashic Books, Brooklyn, NY

ISBN: 978-1-61775-714-3

Available at Amazon

Ratings: A Must Read

Feedback: glenvilleashby@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter

Author: C.J. Farley

Critic: Glenville Ashby, PhD