IF THE HARVARD boys in Erich Segal's new novel, The Class, like older women, there are some Radcliffe girls they should meet:
Megan, Cathy, Lavinia, Janet and Peg, Class of '43, from Alice Adams' new novel, Splendid Women; and Annabel, Chris, Emily and Daphne, Class of '57, from Rona Jaffe's 5-year-old novel, Class Reunion.
The Segal boys, Daniel, Jason, Theodore, Andrew and George, are Class of '58. (Mary McCarthy's The Group is Vassar '33, which makes them old enough to be the boys' mothers. Besides, Poughkeepsie is such a difficult commute from Cambridge.)
It would be easy to get them together. The Jaffe girls were at school with them for three years, and the Adams girls' 40th reunion is at the same time and place as the boys' 25th, the catalyst event of Segal's book.
They have so much else in common. The girls are haunted by their terrible mothers, while the boys are obsessed with their hateful fathers. The knowledge that they all struggle to achieve turns out to be: If you fulfill your parents' expectations, you will be in deep emotional trouble.
Each set, as chronicled in their respective books from freshman year well into alumnihood, contains at least one good-looking blond, identified as a Golden Boy or Girl, who appears to have everything (but doesn't); one proud possessor of old money and manners, one Jew who is embarrassed about having money and nervous about manners, and one miscellaneous ethnic with roots problems.
A mixer is needed, because none of these people is as well mated in his or her home volume.
The men in the women's books are drunkards, cads, habitual philanderers or homosexuals, to whom the long-suffering women are only too anxious to hold on. But the women in the men's book are only too ready to abandon them at the first instance of ordinary trouble.
The women's books chronicle undergraduate years of agony about virginity, the danger of pregnancy, and the impossibility of enjoying both sex and respect, followed by adult lives riddled with identity problems resulting from their pre-feminist upbringing.
However, the women in the men's book are carefree sensualists, who avidly seek sex but want to avoid or sever emotional bonds. Although they are out of the job market for a decade or two, they step with ease into glamorous positions when they feel like it, instantly matching or outdistancing the steadily working men.
Presumably, the discrepancy is because boy future-novelists lived in the boys' houses by the river, and girl future-novelists, far away at the Quad. Let us hope that this literary genre, so useful to writers who feel they need professional excuses and tax deductions to attend their own college reunions, may improve when they come from classes that have the mixed boy-girl housing arrangement.
Those novels will also be written by alumni who had to take Harvard's freshmen Expos (expository writing). Segal was unfortunately not cured early of such sloppy habits as describing the commonplace as "uncanny." (Freshmen of common interests group together: "By some uncanny instinct, the jocks had already started to discover one another." "An uncanny thing occurred": a musician forgets his stagefright as he plays.)
He might have benefitted from margin notes: "Mixed metaphor" (Seniors "were painfully aware that very little sand remained in the hour glass of their college lives. For in precisely nine months, they would be cast from the comfortable womb of Harvard into the cold, harsh world.") or "Check facts" (a character is said to take the Eastern Airlines shuttle in 1958, before it existed), or "Clich,e" ("He could give but he couldn't share," "But now I realize that everybody pays a price for his success").
IT WOULD help the whole genre if student-characters were allowed to pick their own friends by similarity of background and interests, rather than have to live with the authors' desire for demographic distribution. How four different golden boys or girls with inner doubts -- or four different ethnic over-achievers -- develop individually might be less tedious than the attempt to personify the entire range of collegiate possibilities.
Segal's book, only too slavishly following the old formula, is, like its predecessors, a readable bore. One is drawn into following each student's progress, even though it is obvious where it is leading.
Will Theodore, the Greek-American townie who waits tables at night while the others party, outdistance them all intellectually? (Sure. Did you suppose he would drop out of Harvard and return with relief to his father's restaurant?)
Will Jason be true to the assimilationist tradition of his Jewish family and pass into Wasp society, or will he discover a new pride?
Will Andrew follow the tradition of his proud New England ancestors with a tremendous achievement, or will he prefer to develop his simple humanity?
Will Daniel fulfill his father's expectation for him of failure, or will he spur himself on to tremendous achievements?
These are just the true-false questions. The essay question is: What does this tell us about education, Harvard, or this particular generation of presumably bright young men?
Segal has sprinkled the book with embarrassing tributes to real faculty members. Cedric Whitman "was the most humane humanist they had ever known." "John H. Finlay, Jr., was one of the greatest teachers in Harvard history," although Segal feels obliged to credit him with a crack associated with another Harvard figure, Arthur Darby Nock. But only one character in The Class is seriously influenced by Harvard classes.
That is George, a Hungarian refugee who becomes an intellectual disciple of Professor Henry Kissinger's. ("By some canny mutual telepathy they gravitated toward each other." "Harvard . . . had brought him close to Henry Kissinger, with whom his mind worked in uncanny sympathy.") And Segal takes pains to make it clear that George is an inhuman monster.
To the other characters, Harvard seems to exist only as a quality brand-name and a training ground for world-class status-striving. The only thing they actually learn is hubris. The people in this book seem to have been annointed, rather than educated, by Harvard.