Anti-woke literature is growing, although you’re unlikely to hear about it. Anti-woke authors have been ignored by publishers and agents, denied by literary editors, canceled by social media, refused by libraries. Yet anti-woke authors have survived by self-publishing, building their own websites and listservs, and advertising on social media without being so honest as to alert the social media censors.
I should know: I am the proud author of the first satire of woke academia (The Dark Side of Sunshine, Perseublishing, 2020). I stand on the shoulders of giants—giants who satirized progressive academia before it was known as woke: P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Mary McCarthy, David Lodge, to name a few. Independently, Andrew Pessin has joined the canon—a fellow professor who has turned his satirical skills on academia itself.
Nevergreen is a short, fast book, whose titular campus is surely named after Evergreen State College (where, in 2017, student mobs effectively expelled Professor Bret Weinstein for ignoring their self-declared day of absence for white people). “Nevergreen” is a fantastic place, even before the reader learns of its wokeness. It occupies a former insane asylum, on an island, with an infrequent and untimely ferry service. It is a metaphor for academia’s self-separation, and the scene for a darkly comic escape thriller.
Nevergreen is written in the third person, but gushes like the unspoken self-talk of a man on the edge. What starts in the past tense, over a few days of punctuated fictional time, soon slows to continuous, real-time reactions, mostly told from within the hero’s busy mind. The hero reacts with self-conscious reflections, self-praise for his own word play, self-reproach when he does not know what to say, notes-to-self about what to tell his wife (at home). Unlike the authors I mentioned above, Pessin writes rapid-fire, incomplete sentences or clauses, in imitation of casual speech and thought. The vocabulary is profane and colloquial—increasingly so, as the hero loses sleep and reason.
The hero is a philosopher, like Pessin himself, with a discordant interest in medical art. A chance encounter on a passenger plane leads to an invitation to speak at Nevergreen. And so begins a nightmarish overnight stay on a campus where students and faculty identify with the lunatic asylum (“Keep it crazy!”), where the woods are the preserve of carnivorous hogs, where secret tunnels and surveillance devices empower a murderous librarian, where “normal” is the new “N-word,” where students don’t like to “graduate” but prefer to “ripen.”
The hero (known only as “J.” by his own choice) is—following most academic satire—a well-meaning but insecure over-intellectualizer. No student attends his talk, which he finds rather relieving. Nonetheless, he is accused of transgressing the college’s “Virtue Code”—a set of unwritten rules, which the administrators cheerfully refuse to specify but leap to extend. As one of them says much later: “there is really nothing we can do, or should do, to stop anyone from expressing their feelings here. Freedom of feeling, and freedom to express feelings, are among our highest Community Values at Nevergreen.”
Pessin keeps J.’s transgression as vague as J.’s limited perceptibility: the best we know is that J. took a walk around campus, wandered into an open-air exhibition of student groups, and made eye contact with a feminist while she was feeling particularly bloody-minded.
Many pages later, during a mass gathering of hate against hate, Pessin paraphrases one of the supposed victims of J.’s transgression. Here is the sort of insight and wordplay that I found most rewarding in this novel: “she borrowed terminology gleaned from any number of classes to explain how certain words having nothing whatever to do with sexuality can, when uttered in the right gentle way by the right sort of unassuming person, constitute extreme sexual violence toward a person not actually present.” Priceless!
Pessin’s satire is most rapid in the middle of the novel, where the escalating fictional madness reminded me of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. J.’s haters publish his headshot online, as the face of “hate.” Nevertheless, one of the administrators reassures him: “Almost definitely not you. They probably just took that off the internet. That’s probably just somebody photoshopped to look like you. And even if it were you, it symbolizes something else entirely.”
Incongruously, a few of the faculty—protected by tenure in one case, and fashionable “minority” identities in another—happily lampoon their own college’s madness, without helping J. to escape it.
More incongruously, some students take Nevergreen’s libertine principles in circular directions, seeking the opposite of whatever is fashionable. For instance, the self-proclaimed “Colonel of Truth” is known to have campaigned for an “unsafe space.” In a reasonable world, an unsafe space would be one for free speech, but the Colonel of Truth specified broken glass and a rabid rat.
Another student reacts to the creeping ban on animal products by instigating a hunt for the venerated hogs: he orders spears and body paint, and wants the killing and eating to be as bloody as possible.
I hoped that these counter-normatives would end in counter-revolutions, but they go off in their own mad directions. Their leaders, as they turn out, are just egotists, using their notoriety to dominate their male followers and seduce their female followers. I found their carefree survival unrealistic—even though unrealistic is within the license of the satirist. In the real world, counter-revolutionaries are quickly expelled, canceled, or humiliated into renouncing their sins and rejoining the mob, as at Evergreen State College.
The most self-aware person on campus eventually admits she is a “woman” who “realized [she] could raise my social capital by pretending to be a boy. That was pretty awesome until, well, it seemed like everyone was pretending to be the opposite sex, so that’s when [she] started pretending to be a boy who was pretending to be a girl.”
At Nevergreen, the bulk of the students, as per the real world, seem unaware of their own contradictions and hypocrisies. When the “Colonel of Truth” appears in Confederate military costume, he is met with a shout of “racist piece of s*** clothing, worn by a racist piece of s***!”
“Doesn’t cursing also violate the Virtue Code?” asks the Colonel of Truth.
“Civility is a tool of oppression,” comes a shout from the mob.
Meanwhile, the faculty address each other as “friend,” and pretend that they are building a utopia of equity. At the same time, they try to out-maneuver each other for seniority and privilege. In the following (typically long) sentence, Pessin reverts to narrator to give a rare perspective from Nevergreen’s inhabitants themselves: “she, Sora, was possessed of masters and doctoral degrees in Diversity and Inclusion Theory and Practice, had turned down professorships from Oxford and Harvard to accept the Nevergreen values position because she was so attracted to the school’s radically forward philosophy and relished the challenge of rebuilding the institution after The Episode, and she really didn’t appreciate being lectured about ‘not understanding’ by an undergraduate who was more than four years into, without completing, her major in coloring.”
Sora herself (preferred pronoun presumed) comes unstuck trying to reason with the mob. “I am on your side here. I share your values.”
“Our values?! Shut up!”
This little ditty reminded me of the abuse, in 2015, of Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist at Yale, who tried to reason with students who objected to his counseling against restrictions on what could be worn for Halloween. You can find the videos online. The evidence is illustrative: In debate, the woke quickly descend into foul-mouthed abuse and filibustering, while claiming to be the victims.
At Nevergreen, when the Colonel of Truth offers to debate, his protagonist replies: “I don’t want to debate! I want to talk about my pain! Can nobody here understand that?”
As one of Nevergreen’s foreign students recalls elsewhere in the novel, American students “led these comfortable lives yet complained constantly of their discomfort.”