Campus Castoffs

REVIEW: ‘How I Won a Nobel Prize’ by Julius Taranto

December 10, 2023

You know that conservative challenges to the American model of higher education are making inroads when they are the target of a satirical campus novel. In How I Won a Nobel Prize, Julius Taranto presents an entertaining send-up of life and work at a university that rejects the extremes of academic woke-ism and bureaucracy, but is subject to dangerous extremes of its own. This debut is not only fast-paced and funny (and occasionally frustrating), but also offers worthwhile representations of both progressive and conservative political ideals and activism.

The novel’s narrator and protagonist, Helen, is a physics graduate researcher studying with a Nobel Laureate named Perry Smoot. Initially at Cornell, the two are on the verge of a breakthrough in research for high-temperature superconductivity that could become a major weapon in the fight against climate change. But Smoot, described by Helen as "a big brilliant queer of the Oxbridge style," leaves the Ivy League in disgrace after hitting on a student. Fortunately, there’s another school eager to welcome him despite his fall from grace. Because of it, actually.

Located on an island off of Connecticut, the Rubin Institute Plymouth—aka RIP, Sandals for scandals, and Rape Island—is a haven for disgraced academics. Give the Rubin Institute your harassers, your racists, your un-woke scholars. Founded and funded by a shady venture capitalist named B.W. Rubin, the new school’s "key qualifications were thought to be some high level of professional achievement combined with intolerance for—ideally some history of conflict with—what B.W. once called ‘faculty lounge neopuritan Maoists.’" Free of committee work or administrative oversight, it’s a great gig if you don’t mind constant controversies and protests.

Helen has reservations about joining Smoot at Rubin, but her professional success is tied to his. Her sort-of-husband, Hew, is the harder sell; more progressive and political than she is, he comes along on the condition that they become vegan. On the island, they encounter faculty who’ve committed diverse crimes against 21st-century cultural norms.

It’s an entertainingly absurd cast of castoffs. There’s a senator who once wore blackface, Ralph Northam-style. There are people who used the N-word. There’s R. Kelly. There’s a building named after William F. Buckley and a food service that luxuriates in cultural appropriation. More ominously, at RIP, people don’t just harbor legitimate concerns about the fairness of Title IX procedures—rape accusations are simply ignored. In case the patriarchy’s power wasn’t obvious enough, the main building on campus is an enormous tower nicknamed the Endowment, the source of ongoing phallic humor that comes to a head during the novel’s climax.

Despite its absurd vision of conservative/libertarian attitudes about higher education and cancel culture, the novel includes thoughtful expressions of conservatism through the character of Leopold Lens, an aging novelist whom Helen befriends. If Smoot’s character calls to mind the political philosopher Allan Bloom—author of The Closing of the American Mind and the inspiration for Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein—Lens is the book’s Bellow. He warns Helen that wokeness is "a theology with no text, no god, no organizing myth or principles, no traditions. … It is the religion of the mob." He attempts to convince her how much better her life (and Hew’s) could be without the reigning orthodoxy of our time:

Just think how beautiful it would be to wake up and be yourselves—smart, educated, lucky, white, straight, American people—without feeling like your very existence is traumatizing untold millions of people you’ve never even met. You probably call this conservatism, I know, but it’s really just liberalism and capitalism and a simple hypothesis that the best rule is to ignore groups and treat every person like an individual, full stop.

While Helen immerses herself in her work and makes slow, uneven progress with Smoot, Hew becomes more miserable, radicalized, and frustrated. His performative ethics annoy even Helen, which makes her worry that she’s becoming conservative—egads! At a protest back on the mainland (think the Unite the Right rally, but with more weapons and casualties), he befriends anarchists and is nearly killed by a violent group of white supremacists.

Suspecting that Hew is having an affair, Helen half-heartedly tries to start one of her own. But her husband’s skepticism of RIP proves well-founded, as she finds out for herself when her research discoveries are threatened. Hew’s activism transforms from a threat to their relationship into a deus ex machina that rescues her career and their romance—at a cost.

The novel’s compelling plot moves quickly, thanks in part to short chapters and clever moments of foreshadowing. Taranto is also very good at making readers care about—and understand—Helen’s complex research and rare skills. "Why don’t you writers write more about work?" Helen asks Lens. "[T]he thousands of little failures and successes and puzzles and tensions and et cetera et cetera. It’s what most of us are doing most of the time." Taranto takes his character’s advice. Helen also observes that "many physical laws are bursting with symbolism," which explains why she can’t resist connecting the details of superconductivity to her personal and professional crisis. This works most of the time, but I would like to call a moratorium on references to Schrödinger’s cat, the lowest common denominator of physics analogies.

At the risk of giving too much away about the novel’s climax, I can’t resist pointing out its ironic echoes of a tragic moment during the Vietnam era. In 1970, radicals at the University of Wisconsin-Madison detonated a bomb to destroy an Army research center in what they thought was an empty building. It wasn’t. The terrorists killed a 27-year-old father of three named Robert Fassnacht, who happened to be conducting research in superconductivity—the same field as Helen’s.

How I Won a Nobel Prize presents a happier version of this tragedy, but the overlap between history and fiction warns of the dangerous side of the novel’s cathartic destruction. And in the denouement, Helen expresses a skepticism of utopian visions, even as she insists on the importance of the hope and optimism that such a perspective entails. As for Hew, he matures toward a more productive activism that seeks to apply artificial intelligence toward a smarter approach to wealth redistribution. What could go wrong?

How I Won a Nobel Prize
by Julius Taranto
Little, Brown, 304 pp., $27

Christopher J. Scalia is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.