‘Stay True’ Rethinks the Campus Story

‘Stay True’ Rethinks the Campus Story
Photo Credit: Penguin Random House

What you need to know

It’s not too late to rescue literature’s most cynical and unserious subgenre.

“Anyone who self-publishes an ‘American Epic’ is worth investigating,” Hua Hsu wrote about the great literary eccentric H.T. Tsiang. As it turns out, he could have also been writing about his younger self. 

In the world of Hsu’s extraordinary new memoir, Stay True, the rugged era of newspaper clippings and cassette tapes still papers over the rising glow of the internet age, and eighteen-year-old Hua is “proprietary about liking things.” Borrowing eclectically from various countercultures, he channels his energy into self-publishing a sequence of zines. His young mind is so unquiet, so restless, that it seems to have skipped entirely over seeking friends and instead gone directly to seeking readers. 

But when he meets Ken at UC–Berkeley, circa 1995, Hsu begins to see reflected in the mosaic of his curated worldview another face besides his own. Fast friends, the two undergraduates stand together on balconies over Telegraph and Fulton, sharing cigarettes and offering up their obsessions to one another like confessions to a mirror. Until Ken dies, suddenly and violently, at the age of twenty. Two and a half decades later, his friend publishes Stay True.    

Critics have so far proposed a few frameworks for thinking about Hsu’s memoir: It’s about masculine affection and platonic friendship; it’s about the formation of Asian American identity; it’s about assimilation; it’s about “zines, time, education, California, history, partygoing, menswear, mixtapes, and a dozen other matters.” Let me propose another framework: Stay True is a campus story. 

Hsu is a college student for at least 80 percent of the book (he moves on to grad school at Harvard by the end). He and his friends mingle in student lounges and fraternity parties, visit professors during office hours, sleep in each other’s dorms. In a few of the most memorable scenes, they encounter protesters chained to the campus clocktower or picketing the campus gates. And while Ken’s death looms from the beginning — the tragedy is disclosed on the dustjacket — Stay True’s real narrative momentum comes from Hsu’s unsteady progress through a series of intellectual transformations, driven by the haphazard accumulation of new ideas, new experiences, new art. New friends. 

The campus novel (if not, admittedly, the campus memoir) has to be the most overdeveloped subgenre in American literature. This context is what makes Stay True so refreshing and provocative. By giving us a stylistically atypical kind of campus story, one derived not from ironic fantasy but from sincere recollection, Hsu manages to show just how warped our campus literature has become.

For one thing, the literary campus tends to be curiously vacant of the people it ostensibly exists to serve. The American campus novel is almost always narrated by a professor. Its autumn-tinted world may be peopled by townies and tweeds and all their intermarried offspring, but students are described in plural, or not at all, and they rarely come with names.  

The famous opening tableau of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, published in 1985 but only recently given the Netflix treatment, features students spilling out of station wagons with “comic cries and gestures of sodden collapse.” Together they comprise an undifferentiated mass of youth and obsequiousness, but as individuals they matter little to the novel. Or consider Denis Johnson’s The Name of the World (2000), narrated by a morose adjunct who pictures his colleagues’ vainglorious houses “pressed window to window” above “the wide undifferentiated air of a plunging chasm.” Johnson’s professors are all trapped alone inside ivory snowglobes; students hardly so much as knock on the glass. Even when the campus novel gets political — as in the polarizing Japanese by Spring (1993), by Berkeley’s longtime provocateur-in-residence Ishmael Reed — student life has a way of washing out against the high drama of university administration. Meanwhile, the real slapstick is staged among the faculty. 

That’s another thing about the American campus novel. Besides being bereft of students, it is also, as a rule, satirical. But this is satire without a referent — excavate the genre to its ur-texts and you’ll find send-ups all the way down, from the observational comedy of Mary McCarthy (The Groves of Academe, 1952), to the scatology of Kingsley Amis (Lucky Jim, 1954), to the ironic pretension of Nabokov’s Pnin (1957). Seventy years of unserious and self-referential satire have accreted to the campus-novel canon like ivy to a wall. 

Any reasonable reader would be left to wonder whether professors have ever taken this whole college thing seriously at all. And so is it any surprise that novels about the affairs of undergraduates have become their own species of lazy parody, as well? With their fixation on erotic malaise and hollow grotesquerie, novels like Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction (1987) and Donna Tart’s The Secret History (1992) apply to the campus novel’s well-established pomp and irony a patina of horror-movie camp. This style, incidentally, has lately been undergoing something of a latter-day revival in the form of the marketing gimmick called “dark academia.”

But there is nothing parodic about Stay True. The magic of the memoir is in how deftly Hsu chronicles the fitful maturation of his own mind. It is an eminently sincere accounting of one person’s interior trajectory from adolescence into young adulthood, when the discovery of new ideas could still be so devastating as to prompt cycles of deep introspection and personal reinvention —to say nothing of friendships so intense you write a book about them 25 years later. 

The maturation of the mind is, of course, the core concern of all bildungsroman, not the exclusive domain of campus stories. And the campus is certainly not the only, or even the best, setting for that most fundamental and trippy of human transitions, the aging into of your own brain. It’s just that for Hua Hsu, as for a number of us, it actually was. You’d think there would already be a well-worn groove in our campus literature for stories like that. Yet instead we have a glut of cynical professor novels that don’t take seriously the idea of education. 

It’s no coincidence, I think, that a memoir like Stay True succeeds where so many novels have failed. Memoirs can’t slip into satire in the same way novels can. The form demands introspection, and introspection, clearly, is what the campus novel needs. (I should note that, besides Stay True, a few distinctly memoir-ish campus novels —Brandon Taylor’s Real Life; Elif Batuman’s The Idiot — have lately signaled a break in the right direction.) 

The campus novel also needs a reality check. In fact, if we look beyond the page, it’s hard to say whether “the campus” even exists at all. DeLillo’s College-on-the-Hill, truth be told, is an imitation of an anomaly, a total edge-case. Sure, campuses like that exist, but the vast majority of the U.S.’s almost 20 million post-secondary students don’t attend them. (Less than a quarter of students in the U.S. attend private colleges of any kind.) The image of the campus so many of us hold in our minds is a literary facsimile, a myth, as remote from the grass and tile worksites of real higher education as Camelot is from medieval Britain. 

Furthermore, and importantly for Stay True, a huge portion of post-secondary students in the United States come from other countries. (Before the pandemic, U.S. colleges and universities hosted well over a million international students, and even now there are upwards of 900,000.) The American campus novel is almost universally blind to this fact, too. But not Stay True, which situates itself by narrating Hsu’s parents’ experiences of educational migration. 

Some of Stay True’s most arresting passages capture the diffuse network of Taiwanese student enclaves Hsu’s parents inhabited prior to his birth in 1977. In the U.S. of the mid-1960s, Taiwanese graduate students formed bonds by shuttling one another between regional airports and places like East Lansing, Urbana-Champaign, Amherst — slices of downhome Americana famous for nothing but the presence of colleges. “Communities of students from throughout the Chinese-speaking world found one another in these small, relatively remote college towns,” Hsu writes. “They had come to study at American schools far superior to their Asian counterparts, though the reward for such a mad pursuit had yet to come into focus.”

For some, the American campus was a site of deep social and intellectual dislocation, as in the case of “one girl who stopped going to classes altogether,” instead “drifting around campus” in her heaviest winter coat at the height of summer. But for others the campus provided a kind of emotional anchor; Hsu’s parents, for example, married in front of the student center at the University of Illinois. 

Tragically, the aestheticized and frankly tacky literary campus has distracted our literature from the contradictory but sometimes lovely reality of higher education. Whatever its size or setting or typical degree-type, every college or university shares one basic feature in common. It is a place where young people gather together to learn. Every campus will therefore inevitably play host to the kind of epic interior drama that is the exclusive prerogative of the maturing human mind, year after year, generation after generation. 

Introspection hardly lends itself to parody, and professors make poor protagonists of stories about transcendence. But if we had a more introspective literature to draw on, we might conclude that the transcendental capacity of students is what really defines the campus, not whatever it is cynical professors insist on continuously lampooning. 

Stay True points down a road seldom traveled in the stories we tell about higher education. But it would seem to be one worth taking.


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Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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