About halfway through my read, my husband asked me about this, and I told him, "It's boring." This is not exactly true; it's not boring. But I meant "boring" the way my kids mean when, in the middle of the summer doldrums of popsicles, long slow evenings, and dirt-black feet from running barefoot, they come to me and say, "I'm bored." They are not bored. In thirty years, they will mark this time as idyllic, fairy-edged, all of those odd memories of walking out to go to daycamp, and seeing the mysterious rabbit who lives under our porch disappear into the overgrown ivy; or the sound of the sand as it crunches while they make messes and castles and castle-messes; or the quality of the light while the boy sits in his evening-lit bedroom and reads past his bedtime. It's boring, but it's magic.
I'm old enough for my early college years to be magic, in a similar way. I don't think they were perfect times, in any way. I have this hard image of my roommate coming back from break, hysterically weird, and drinking herself into a truly upsetting level of inebriation. She was laughing hysterically, and I can still see her roll forward, laughing, and in that moment I felt the laughter shift, and then it all came out as tears, as howls. She went home over break to learn her mother had tried to kill herself. Or the otherworldly girl across the hall, damaged, touched, beautiful, who didn't so much attempt suicide as enact a "suicidal gesture" in the odd, post-Freudian nomenclature of our times. I sat with her when she came back, arms bandaged, and we talked about how hard it was to communicate, while her plump, happy music major roommate snored softly. We whispered, so as not to wake her up.
This is trite, and boring, but it was also unreal/real in way. I've never had a time in my life so odd and discombobulated. Dean captures the hell out of this feeling: the discomfort, the isolation while being completely cocooned in a isolated society. She snares all the mundanity, like the endless discussions of which hellish dorm to eat at, or the discussions of campus furniture, or the bathroom graffiti, or a hundred other boring things. This also takes place in my home state, not far from where I live, and Dean's descriptions of the roll of the seasons, the quality of February, matched with my own experience in a way that made it feel like she was talking to me alone. I feel jealous of this story, not in the sense that I wish I wrote it, although that would be nice, but in the sense that I feel I have lived it, and I don't want to share this experience. A freshman is a special thing, unique, even while she is common as rain. I don't want to share, even though I know my experience is shared, because I am still me, alone. I'm teetering on the edge of making fun of me here, but I will refrain, as Dean does. I may have been a goose, and a common goose, but I waddled as best I could.
This is the kind of book that is made by its ending. At that mid-point, I also said to my husband that I knew Dean was going somewhere with it all, and she did. Another thing I remember about my early college years was the sense of the connectedness of it all: a geology class that hit on Lyell, which rolled into the works of Keats, who came after Milton, who had something to do with Plato and Tolstoy and Akhmatova standing at the prison where her son languished, and Darwin's pigeons, and Chuang Tzu's butterfly and god know what all. I have never since argued so passionately about the quality of the light in a cave, and while I'm happy I don't care anymore, I love that I can remember the intensity of such arguments. Dean nails this too.
And love. I'm half-tempted to tell stories of that college boyfriend, who was not more real than my high school boyfriend, but there are moments there: half-drunk from lack of sleep from that all-nighter, and laughing with him on the stairs to the dorm as the senior streakers went by; the way he gleamed when he talked about the whaling section of Moby Dick, or R.E.M.; the time he wrote out John Donne's "The Bait" for me, as a love poem; the way he walked on his toes. We were playing at something that wasn't real yet, but it would be, later, when I decided to leave that school, and he came to Minneapolis and was diminished, and left and we never spoke again. Real is awful. Real is the worst thing there is. But unreal has its dangers too, and Dean writes that conflict with the lightest hand I have ever encountered, and my memories streak past me in the dark, naked, on their way to matriculation and the hard, unfocused world of the real.