There are books so strange that they will make you think I have never read anything similar and there’s no way I ever will. Maybe they have such a weirdness to them that you can’t imagine experiencing it again with the same feel, or maybe they have an underlying thread of meaning that can’t be put into words but that you know to be true, one inexplicable and unique to them.
What happens, then, when another books proves you wrong?
Welcome back! Today I’m going to talk, as I said I maybe would in my last post, about my recent experience with Catherine House both as a well-known dark academia hater and as someone who read Vita Nostra in 2018 and hasn’t fully recovered since.
What is Catherine House: an American 2020 novel by author Elisabeth Thomas, following a young woman entering an elite, reclusive school that might or might not be a highly unethical cult preying on the most vulnerable. With its meandering nature and deep dedication to the eerie, alienating atmosphere, it seems to have disappointed most of its readership, at least on Goodreads. There have been discussions about whether this fits any of the genres it has been said to be – mystery (ehh), thriller (lmao no), horror (one could argue), dark academia (I’d argue). My interpretation of this is that we’re talking about something that is also a critique of predatory college culture, so dark academia could work.
What is Vita Nostra: a novel by Ukrainian authors Marina & Sergey Dyachenko, of which I read the 2018 English translation by Julia Meitov Hersey. Unlike Catherine House, I wouldn’t describe it as dark academia, even though it has some characteristics in common: despite it being set in a cruel Institute of Special Technologies, I doubt it was talking about school at all, for how much I could understand it – and I mostly didn’t. This both has to do with 2018!me being less experienced in looking at things sideways and with the fact that I’m not forced to know the cultural touchstones of this book the way I am with everything American. I imagine Catherine House would be just as unintelligible had I known nothing about the American college system.
To get one thing out of the way: few things annoy me as much as people who cry plagiarism the moment they encounter similarities between two pieces of media. I’m going to assume that everyone here is familiar with the concept of convergent evolution, or, at least, of artistic influence (even though that’s not necessarily what happened here). I’m more interested in wondering why these two books, which have in theory very little in common, ended up being so similar to me – and why, also, I really like them both.
Why I’m generally not interested in dark academia
halfway to off-topic? yes, and you can skip it, but I feel it provides context
It all boils down to several layers of being an outsider to its culture. Let’s start with the most obvious one: I’m not American, and the culture & aesthetic that dark academia is at the same time fascinated by and critiquing is a very American one – or, at most, deeply Anglo. That’s not to say academic elitism doesn’t exist in my country, but the differences between college and especially Ivy League culture in America and what university means to the average Italian student (often doesn’t leave home, which makes university less significant both as stage of life and economically) make it irrelevant to my negative experiences with Italian universities.
Then there’s how pretentious it is: while I don’t find that the dark academia books I’ve read or tried embraced that uncritically, I still found it grating and fundamentally uninteresting – this time also because I do know the kind of people who get that pretentious about literature, and they’re not very interesting to me. (They usually, as elitist Italians, very much make fun of the English and their Shakespeare. Yes, If We Were Villains was an interesting experience [only] in that.) But what matters the most is that I’m a natural sciences student. The difference between a professor having a decades-long obsession with Ancient Greek and one having a decades-long obsession with slime mold is that the casual cruelty and unrealistic pressure put on students is more of the “completely unhinged” kind rather than “stiff and pretentious”, which is way funnier than anything these books I’ve tried so far came up with. As usual, I’m only wishing you’d be weirder, as my reality is.
You know what these two books, incidentally, are not lacking in?
Let’s start with the cover of Vita Nostra.
I can’t tell you what its illustration means, if it means anything at all; I can only tell you that it captures the feeling of reading this book perfectly. I don’t know if it was meant that way, but to me, the person on the cover is the reader. This is one of the first things I noticed about both Vita Nostra and Catherine House: I couldn’t look at anything directly. So much of them is symbolism, so much of them is subtext, so much of them is a distant, unhurried reflection with an urgent undercurrent – something is very, very wrong.
To read these books, you have to get out of your usual framework for understanding most of speculative fiction. Both novels have something that could be described as a sci-fantasy twist, but it doesn’t work as either science or a magic system, nor it is a clear-cut metaphor as it could be in straightforward fabulism – no, one could see it as weirdness for the sake of it, unexplained, but to me, it’s an emotion made literal. In both books, we’re dealing with unrealistic academic pressure and what might be nonconsensual experimentation, though obtaining real answers on that is always a challenge; the two things end up overlapping. There’s this sense of isolation, too: the setting is remote, the characters can’t talk to their families and reality might not be such. Everything about these stories feels so empty in the way their pages are sometimes filled with unsettingly mundane events, in the distance they add by telling and never showing, by introducing you to way too many characters you never get to really know – recreating the feeling of alone in a crowd.
And maybe it’s in Ines’ assignment about a painting that is almost a blank canvas, and maybe it’s Sasha’s impossible mental exercises, but there’s this feeling of trying to break through reality into another dimension with only the effort of your own brain, of trying to juggle incompatible truths (which sometimes are physically so) because you have to, you can’t be anything different, and you don’t know what is happening to you anymore (Where are you? When was the last time you felt?) – all of it mirrored by the effort it takes to follow the book without letting all of it run through your brain meaninglessly. The writing is deceptively simple, all the sentences make sense on their own. Together, however? It’s not so different from a feeling I get while studying sometimes.
By which I mean that Vita Nostra and Catherine House are more a portrayal of a feeling than a story, and by “feeling”, I mean depression compounded by unrealistic pressure and a deep alienation from reality. I think that at heart they are talking about two different situations in two very different contexts (I wish I could be more sure about Vita Nostra) but this is the running thread, and both their conclusions manage to be very ambiguous while maintaining an ominous, inevitable feeling to them. I know this feeling! I’ve been this feeling several times and I always have a stream of it running somewhere; I know many who have felt in similar ways. These books have the removed universality I wasn’t getting from the more painfully American, less strange side of this genre. It is, yet again, another case of non-white and non-western writers coming up with some of the most universal stories, even though that may not translate to “commercial appeal”. (On my opinion on that, see my previous post.)
These two novels read like having a depressive episode while in school, and I mean that as praise.
Have you read or want to read any of these? What are your thoughts on dark academia? What has been your most unexpected case of bookish déjà vu?