Trevor Cribben Merrill’s 2020 debut novel, “Minor Indignities,” is a student-centered novel set at a place that seems suspiciously like Yale in the early-mid-nineties. It’s a world in which young, smarty-pants kids compare their personal libraries, think a new used bookstore is exciting, actually read books, have to open up a computer to send an email, and do not carry in their hands any kind of cell phone, smart or dumb.
Minor Indignities by Trevor Cribben Merrill (227 pages, Wiseblood Books, 2020)
Of campus novels, I’ve always been partial to those written from the perspective of faculty members. The offerings of Kingsley Amis, David Lodge, and Malcolm Bradbury have always made me laugh with their winking at the absurdities of the institutions, professors, and administrators. Perhaps it’s because my adult life has been mostly in the faculty camp that I lean that way. And yet the right kind of story from the point of view of students can be powerful. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels, and Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons have all stuck with me for different reasons. Trevor Cribben Merrill’s 2020 debut novel, Minor Indignities, is in that student-centered category and will, I believe, stick with me, too.
Some of that is, I confess, generational nostalgia. Merrill is about my age, and though his tale is set at a place that seems suspiciously like Yale while I went to a midwestern Protestant denominational school, it is the early-mid-nineties that we are talking about. Colin Phelps, the narrator of this tale told many years later, is a smart kid with literary and intellectual pretensions from a small town in coastal Maine. His world is still one in which young smarty-pants kids compare their personal libraries, think a new used bookstore is exciting, actually read books, have to open up a computer to send an email, and do not carry in their hands any kind of cell phone, smart or dumb. Professors are still treated largely with deference, except by Colin’s rebel poseur roommate Rex, who demands that all the world bow to his demands. And relationship troubles can be taken care of by a single college dean without the intervening of a massive administrative apparatus.
This description makes it sound pretty good in many ways, I admit. Forgive the middle-aged reviewer’s retreat to his own happy memories of an America that seems disappearing if not gone already. But the spiritual, intellectual, and social diseases whose symptoms are now undeniable had already begun to manifest. Only one figure shows signs of religious upbringing, a somewhat ill-educated Catholic whose practice essentially peters out by the end of the novel. Those with a social conscience are inevitably drawn to the kind of performative and incoherent left-wing activism that never entails diminution of anybody’s own lifestyle. Sexual relations have moved from dating and “an awkward bargain between the clinical realities of the pill and such tender words as ‘commitment’ and ‘lovemaking’” to the world of “ephemeral liaisons.” And intellectually, the young literati are now breathing in the noxious fumes of postmodern theory.
All these particularities of setting are drawn with accuracy and a light touch, all the better to get the sense of Colin’s own development. Like all young men on the make in a new place, Colin is trying to figure out how to make himself respected by men and attractive to women. (Yes, biological reality was still widely acknowledged thirty years ago.) As with all human beings, especially the young, achieving these goals is mostly a question of whom to imitate and whose desires to emulate. (Merrill has written quite a bit on that expert on such matters, René Girard.) As with many college-aged students, none more so than those of us in that most cynical Generation X, his immediate impulses are to gravitate to those who claim to see through the illusions of everything. Of one lunch, Collin says, “Unable to take the world seriously, we rejoiced in stripping away its varnish of sense to reveal the arbitrary nature of everything.”
But to not take things seriously leaves a vacuum that is filled simply by power, reputation, and prestige—what Colin thinks of as “the world of Names.” What names get dropped? How ought I to react to the various ones I encounter? What is reputation? As he steadily learns, these aren’t easy questions. Not all professors earn their reputation. Not all his classmates who seemed so golden are able to shine throughout the year.
Nowhere are such questions asked more than in his love life. Two young women vie for his attention. One, the very sexy and sophisticated redhead Margot, comes from a broken family, but (or maybe as a result) she pays great attention to the world of names. Julia, the falling away Catholic, is more girl-next-door and at least grounded. She has no time for the sophisticated who claim not to like Jane Austen. Small-town boy Colin seems to go back-and-forth about whom he ought to pursue. His choices in this matter are the stuff of which the ending of his year ultimately depends—and of the number of indignities, per the title, he must endure.
The story is not in the end a tragedy. As the epigraph for the volume, from St. Bernard, reminds the reader, “Humiliation is the way to humility.” Despite a good deal of indignity that might rise above the level of minor, Colin is a young man who has his triumphs. More importantly, he himself rises above the level of cynicism that he sometimes projects. The self-centeredness that can make him an irritating character at various points in the book yields to realizations that his troubles are not the only ones, that there are others out there who are the main characters in their own stories. There is a bit of the Walker Percy character in Colin, one who, despite his secular background, senses messages are being sent to him even perhaps by the campus night itself. He wants to respond to the messages and search for something that transcends the world of Names.
He may well be on the path to the Name above all names, for he senses in his old-fashioned literary and historical study that Christianity plays too large a role in the great literature and stories he is reading to remain ignorant of it. He also senses that his lack of understanding of this faith “created a void at the heart of my self-understanding.” Through Julia, he ends up attending a Catholic Mass, which awakens something of that search in him—an experience of prayer in which he asks to be made “like a little child.”
The later Colin who is narrating this tale doesn’t give much away about where his mind and heart are now. His is a story of intellectual and spiritual growing pains necessary to achieve greater good than he can say without telling an altogether different story. And this one, of a momentous nine months, so well told in its account of the miseries of youth that are so often self-inflicted and so often necessary to grow up and discover (or recover) a bit of oneself and others, is quite right in its scope.
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