“Without stories one would hardly know what world one was in.”
That’s a line from “Old School.” A member of the faculty is heaping praise on our unnamed narrator for the quality of his most recent short story.
“It has to do with self-consciousness…Though I’m no believer, I find it interesting that self-consciousness is associated with the Fall. Nakedness and shame. Knowledge of ourselves as a thing apart, and bound to die. Exile. We speak of self-consciousness as a burden or a problem, and so it is-the problem being how to use it to bring ourselves out of exile. Whereas our tending is to lose ourselves in the distance, wouldn’t you say?”
Knowledge of ourselves as a thing apart, and bound to die…
Certainly ‘exile’ is what we expect when our narrator turns in the story being lauded by Mr. Ramsey. We know, at the time, that it’s not the narrator’s story.
No “spoiler alert” needed here. We already know this group of ambitious student writers will do “almost anything” to reach their goals. The book jacket has made this clear. We don’t care “what” the “almost anything” is. We want to see how the narrator will squirm, how he will pay for his crime.
But the ending is a curve ball. There is no squirming. No shame. No exile.
I will be scratching my head for a long time over the coda but it’s a thing of beauty, in terms of craft, by itself. Wolff seems to anticipate our head-scratching. It’s late in the book, years after the narrator’s school-boy ambition took him too far (at least by normal standards). We think he should be a fallen writer, perhaps now a construction worker or truck driver, somebody who should be licking his wounds. But he’s being invited back to his “Old School.” He’s being invited back as a returning hero, to sit at the table of the esteemed authors who have visited in the decades prior. He contemplates the invitation with this thought:
“Maybe that shapely close was part of what held me back. The appetite for decisive endings, even the belief that they’re possible, makes me uneasy in life as in writing, and may have accounted for some of the dread I felt at the thought of going back.”
A moment later…
“The excuse I gave myself at the time was that someday I’d write something about my days at the school, and needed to guard my fragile version of the place. Memory is a dream to begin with, and what I had was a dream of memory, not to be put to the test.”
It’s the lack of remorse that’s the puzzler here. The build-up is special. The idea of students who take writing and reading and literature so seriously that they compete for the privilege of exclusive access, a “trophy meeting,” with a top writer of the day, beginning with Robert Frost and then Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway. It’s the Rand sections where “Old School” gains steam. Wolff peels back the vanity and self-importance of faculty, teachers, students and the visiting writers too. “Old School” feels like it takes place in a special cocoon for thinkers and writers, among many students who have a spot reserved for them in life.
What propels the narrator to take the steps he does, to take the gamble? How does he feel when his risk-taking move is exposed? In a “normal” book with a regular structure, there would be a price to pay, there would be guilt, shame, remorse. After all, our narrator has pulled off a “low, shameless, asinine hoax.”
But here, nothing.
There should be exile.
But, no. Even the “Old School” wants him back in order to savor his presence. Mr. Ramsey is doing the inviting and, at this chance encounter in Seattle, tells a long story about the former headmaster’s long-lingering white lie about Ernest Hemingway and how its potential exposure cost the headmaster, Arch Makepeace, no small amount of pride. He had been given more leeway, granted more internal “power” at the school because he claimed to have known Hemingway. He was connected to a greatness “radiant with glamour” but it wasn’t true. When Hemingway gets invited to the school as one of the “trophies,” Makepeace must slip away.
So whose crime is worse? Makepeace let the little white lie live. Our narrator committed literary theft-wholesale. But the “Old School” wants him back. Why? Because “there’s an almost physical attraction to privilege” and along with that attraction a “resolve to be near it any cost.”