In his newest collection of short fiction, Ben Nugent has captured the spirit of America’s disassociation with the true gravity of twenty-first century college life. In generations past, books like Valley of the Dolls, The Things They Carried, Election, The Outsiders, Perks of Being A Wallflower, Carrie, Ghost World, The Virgin Suicides, The Chocolate War, A Separate Peace, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (among many, many others since then), have given us a peek into the traumatic and debilitating internal lives of high schoolers – the very same lives that either we were spared from, or have chosen to suppress deep in our minds. Nugent’s Fraternity, however, exists in a post-Brock Turner world; one where the sheer magnitude of the Updikean post-grad traumatic existence, the very shore we build our future selves upon, is a pile of dirt where one’s similarly garbage crown worn only for a short time span can remain on their heads for the rest of their lives.
The world we live in is different now. One where our graduates are assumed to attend college and then enter this new universe of beleaguered suffering and emotional intransience. One where the boundaries of rape and the narrow alleyways of ‘adulting’ can be difficult to navigate for some. Where hearing a ‘no’ and not saying it in front of a crowd of people can have reverberations for decades.
And it is through the lens of these decades, and the brilliantly constructed emotional worlds of Nugent’s characters that we get the true mirror of Fraternity reflecting our current world. We live in a world that is a result of the mistakes, escapes, and pure humiliations of these stories. Nugent’s characters seem to bleed off the page into our hands, as we have experienced this very world either in entertaining the whims of our bosses, spouses, successes, and failures. We watch the same choices being made over and over again, and seem to careen our cars off the same cliffs as if we learned the somethings he writes about when we were in the driver seat of our similarly energetic and indeterminable fates.
We didn’t know what we were doing then, and I am not sure we know any more about our mistakes today… But Nugent’s captivating portrait of these young, directionless, and forgivable undergraduates seems to be the same strange universe we are a part of today, as if the ribbon of time has remained connected and pulled us back to show us what tremendous neuroses we have inflicted upon ourselves and our culture… and fundamentally, precisely where they began.