Saturday, December 10, 2011



The touchstones seem to be everywhere these days: the plaid-wearing, goateed bicycle messengers of “Portlandia”; the grunge heiress Frances Bean Cobain’s recent Hedi Slimane photo shoot; the chortling return of “Beavis and Butthead” to MTV. Yes, the ‘90s are totally back — so much so that some culture observers are probably busy deciding at this very moment that they’re already over again. And there’s no doubt that “Dream School” (Figment), Blake Nelson’s sequel to his beloved 1994 teenage bildungsroman, “Girl,” owes its publication, at least partly, to our current fascination with that halcyon age of mix tapes and Doc Martens. Nelson himself said, “I finished writing the book in 2000, but nobody would publish it, so it sat in my drawer for 10 years.”
Blake Nelson, author of “Dream School.”

Quite apart from the fickleness of retro-focused trends, and regardless of Nelson’s own nostalgia for the ‘90s (“I miss Feminism! The whole culture is so 1950s right now, so conservative and conformist”), “Dream School” is first and foremost an enduring account of what it looks, feels and sounds like to be young. While “Girl” told the story of the Portland, Ore., teenager Andrea Marr and her adventures in the Pacific Northwest’s indie rock music scene, its sequel follows her east to Wellington, a snooty liberal arts college modeled on Wesleyan, which Nelson also attended. Parts of “Girl” were published in Sassy, and the passages gave readers a first-person voice so realistic they might have had to remind themselves that not only were the excerpts fiction, but also fiction actually written by an adult man. Were the oft-missed magazine around today, it might have serialized the new novel as well, which is told in an equally convincing voice.

Despite the gender switch, “Andrea’s experience in college is very nearly identical to mine,” Nelson explained. Before he went to Wesleyan, he had “never dealt with entitled people before, and I didn’t fit in.” From its first chapter, in which Andrea arrives at Wellington and internally compares her ordinary luggage to her fellow students’ “nice” bags (“it wasn’t the most embarrassing thing ever, but it was pretty noticeable”), “Dream School” establishes its protagonist’s outsider perspective. She sees her classmates as “very eastern,” who seem “used to airports and being picked up and going to new places.”

Though Nelson’s uneasiness in college may have been spurred by his peers’ socioeconomic privilege, the book isn’t overtly political. Much like the author himself, “Andrea’s not ideological. She’s an observer.” Yet what “Dream School” may lack in pointed critique, it makes up for in Nelson’s spot-on, often tongue-in-cheek renderings of the minutiae that fill Andrea’s college experience: the pretentious girl in the creative writing workshop who keeps using the term “metafiction”; the eyeliner- and leather-coat-wearing, sexually confident dorm lothario; the forever cooler, laconic friend who makes an experimental film about ecstasy.

If “Girl” was a book read mostly by teenagers but still considered, Nelson said, “a very adult book, in the sense that people hid it from their parents, marked its dirty parts and frequently shoplifted it,” then “Dream School” straddles the same fine line between young adult and just plain adult. For one thing, it thankfully lacks the often heavy-handed moral arcs that so much teen fiction insists on. (Andrea experiments with cocaine but doesn’t need to go to rehab; she practices non-monogamous sex but doesn’t get an S.T.D.) What’s more, as the book ends, Andrea is in her early 20s and, much like Nelson at her age, is feeling the pull of Manhattan. Could there be another sequel in the works? “I’ll definitely think about it, if ‘Dream School’ does well,” Nelson said.

“Dream School” by Blake Nelson, $10. Go to

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