The Big U by Neal Stephenson

This was Stephenson’s first novel, before the PoMo blockbusters. Unsurprisingly therefore, it’s a campus novel, but it’s not like any other campus novel I’ve read. There are comically useless professors and all that, though it’s much more about student interaction; but what makes it unique in what is generally a pretty dull genre is its extremeness. The cover claims it as a satire, which I’m dubious about – unless you consider Ballard’s High-Rise a satire, as that’s what it most resembles. I don’t know if there is accurate comment at the root of any of this, really.

Politics and other internecine rivalries build to the point where the campus turns into a war zone. It’s all wildly over the top, with a bewildering array of factions – Stalinists vs Mormons, maintenance staff teaming up with academics, men vs women, plus groups of D&D players, physicists, feminists, music obsessives, medical students and much more, with added bats and giant irradiated rats and bizarre religious cults and nuclear threats. He orchestrates all of this extremely well, into an extraordinary gigantic climax, pulling it all together into a very strong ending, and along the way there is great entertainment to be had from the caricatures and characters that teem through the novel. It’s a tremendously enjoyable book, even if it lacks the thematic substance and style he later developed.