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Peter KurthIf you wanted to write a bestselling novel in this age of sex and youth-worship, you might do what the pseudonymous Jane Harvard has done in The Student Body. You'd look for a salacious news story, switch its locale, invent a variety of "multicultural" characters -- an African-American student reporter, her Latina roommate, a studly Vietnamese bisexual with pecs of steel, etc. -- and throw them all into a sinister plot involving corporate swindlers and academic frauds who are out to seduce more than the kids. You'd take your readers inside the dorms and regale them with talk about "pussy" and "dicks." One of your characters would count the number of times he "thrusts" during sex, stopping at 140 and noticing afterward that his member is "sticky." You'd be on to something for sure -- something really obnoxious.
"Jane Harvard" is actually the nom de plume of four recent graduates of Harvard, two men and two women, who've spent the last six years hammering out sentences and paragraphs with an eye to exposing the reality of student prostitution in the Ivy League. Based loosely on a real-life sex scandal at Brown in 1986, The Student Body was written "partly as a lark," the authors explain, "and partly as a way to pay off our student loans ... We decided to see if we could collaborate on a book without killing each other." They appear to have accomplished that much successfully, but at the cost of drowning all life in their prose. The Student Body isn't bad so much as stultified, written, rewritten, edited and processed to a single point of breathless obviousness.
"As her classmate shut his eyes and leaned down to kiss her," we read, "Tara Sheridan wondered why voluptuous moments like this had been so rare in her Harvard career." Everyone in The Student Body is introduced like this -- whatever else Jane Harvard may have learned at school, she's up to speed on simple exposition: "The long-haired repairman stripped off his undershirt and dropped it on the avocado-green linoleum floor. He rested his hips against the stainless-steel sink and motioned for the housewife to inch forward." And later: "Sterling Kwok returned from lunch at the faculty club -- risotto primavera and a very pleasant Chardonnay -- only to be informed by an uncharacteristically agitated Mrs. Hale that a group of students had burst into the outer office waiting to see him." The authors' unified, negotiated voice serves as a heavy shellac on their plot and their characters, even though The Student Body was obviously intended to be funny and fun. The best parts of the book are the multicultural send-ups and what arises from the authors' ingrained familiarity with the lives of privileged kids in Cambridge. Everyone drinks Diet Coke; everyone reads Vanity Fair. There are eating disorders and tedious lesbians and condoms stamped with the Harvard motto, "Veritas."
"Sterling had been on the front lines with SDS; he had stormed the administration building, heart pounding with fear as he remembered the demonstrators killed at Kent State ... He had no time for these armchair radicals whining about handicapped bathrooms and dolphin-safe tuna." But takes like this are too few and rare to keep The Student Body moving. As one of the characters says with a sigh, "If only Harvard students weren't so damned convinced of their capacity for original thought." SALON May 4, 1998