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Class (Cum Laude) by Cecily von Ziegasar

ClassClass (originally published as Cum Laude*, 2010) is an 'adult' book by Gossip Girl creator Cecily von Ziegesar. It is no secret that the Gossip Girl series of books is one of my all time favourites, so I was delighted to find this slightly odd and out-of-print one off from the author.

Generally speaking: eh.

There's a lot of interesting things about Class, but mostly they come from contrasting it to other books, and I'll get to them in a paragraph or so. Class qua Class is a fairly substandard entry into the canon of university literature. It features five freshmen at 'Dexter', a private liberal arts college that's your generic New England not-quite-Ivy (a joke they make early on) establishment: complete with gender-ambiguous professors, terrible university theatre, campus druggies and irksome townies. The five weeble and wobble their way through a tumultuous first year, complete with sex, drugs, art, fire and some half-hearted attempts at reinvention.

What works: von Ziegesar has a snappy, snarky sense of humour, and, despite focusing on her characters' flaws, she still makes them, largely, well-rounded. It is also, like all satirical novels, based in truth - and there's enough of the 'universal' American college experience in here to drag up a suppressed memory or two. (Even if your school didn't have a Grateful Dead obsession, you can pretty much pick your generic university-rock poison. Mine would be Dave Matthews Band. Or Phish.)

What doesn't: There's just not enough of any of it - the flaws, the charm, the satire or the truth. Class casually skims across the surface of things and never engages at depth. By the time the book's final third rumbles into action with one goofy set-piece after another, the reader still doesn't like - much less care about - any of the characters. We've had them more or less defined, and each has earned a decent scene or two, but that's it. The book is loosely structured around the five kids all trying to reinvent themselves, but then, when 'disaster' strikes, they find out who they really are. A solid premise - and, certainly, the conclusion is interesting (some of them are who they are, some of them are substantially more). But all the middle is, well, thin

So why is Class interesting? Probably because it provokes awkward comparisons - vs Gossip Girl and vs the 'genre' of middle-class-kids-coming-of-age-at-university (uni-lit?). And, of course, across both, it prompts questions about what the difference between a 'young adult' and an 'adult' text. 

First, as many of the other reviews picked up when Class was released, the book juggles exactly the same set of character archetypes that appear in Gossip Girl. Shipley is Serena, Eliza is Vanessa, Nick and Tom are re-scrambled aspects of Dan and Nate. Which doubles down on the initial question: Gossip Girl works, so why doesn't Class? Part of this, I think, ties into the insidious nature of the 'adult' billing. As someone that's read both series, there's certainly no more mature content - sex, drugs, Grateful Dead references - in Class than in Gossip Girl. The only difference to be found is the ostensible age of the protagonists: Class's are an immature 18, Gossip Girl's are a mature 16. The 'adult' billing, however, puts an onus on the book to deliver depth: the reader expects to find layers of meaning, subtext behind the references to "Zoo Story" and Dianetics, a greater parable to the wanderings of Shipley's homeless brother, "Pink" Patrick. And I'm not sure those are forthcoming - the theme of Class is that university is absurd, and that's about the long and the short of it.

Whereas Gossip Girl, with essentially the same structure and style - chock full of brand references and quasi-loathsome characters - does have the subtext. It is so heavily, deliberately laden with tropes and stereotypes that it gets away with murder (literally, in Gossip Girl: Psycho Killer), and the entire fairy-tale kingdom of Serena and her friends is essentially a secondary world fantasy; a sandbox for morality and amorality plays. Which is to say: Gossip Girl is fun and silly and, by not 'trying so hard', it becomes a playground for all sorts of surprisingly deep thematic explorations. 

And, versus other uni-lit books, Class really takes a beating - once you're in the same genre as, say, The Secret History or The Rules of Attraction, you're batting in the big leagues. Even Tom Wolfe and Michael Chabon failed to pull it off, not to mention notorious chart-topping quasi-thriller and paste-like substances such as The Rule of Four. The most impressive literary books in the genre are about the self-actualising aspects of growing up - finding the truth, or, more critically, learning to reject un-truths. And the less impressive, but commercially successful, genre entries are just full-on collegiate nostalgia-porn (The Rule of Four again!). Class, unhelpfully, slides between the two without qualifying for either. Its glossy/slick protagonists are, rather notably, not growing. They're largely (humorously?) wallowing in the absurdity of their existence. And, on the purely commercial end of the spectrum, there's nothing either aspirational or particularly enviable about their antics: the mayhem of Class is cringe-worthy, not rose-tinted.

Which means, rather unfairly, I'm reviewing Class for what it isn't - and across two dimensions, at that. This book isn't a particularly good example of either the genre it sits in or the author who wrote it. And, again, the temptation is to place the blame on the burden of writing 'for adults' rather than for 'young adults' (a market, ironically, with a substantial number of adult readers). In this context, I suppose, it means Class is a college book written for adults to read with deliberate irony, rather than a high school book for young adults to read with sincere empathy. But Class is altogether too wry and too silly to create any sort of substantial connection with the reader. It tries hard, but, sadly, goes nowhere - and even if that is the point of the story (it is), that doesn't make it a particularly good one.


*My copy was the 2011 Class, which is seriously the most half-assed rejacketing I've ever seen. Literally, all the publisher did was change the jacket: the title page, verso, and everything else all stated Cum Laude. Oops.