27 October, 2008

'Home School' - Charles Webb

In 1963, there was The Graduate. More than forty years passed before readers were given the opportunity to reacquaint themselves with Benjamin and Elaine in Home School (in the fictional world, only eleven years have passed). What had happened to the author, Charles Webb, in the interim, is telling.

The film version of The Graduate turned the story into one of the most recognisable and quoted of the twentieth century. (The website AV Club has an interesting article discussing book vs film). Webb saw little of the revenue generated from the film, having signed a one-off deal for the rights not long after the book was released. The deal covered not just the story, but also the characters. He and his partner Fred (who changed her name from Eve) have spent the ensuing forty-odd years rejecting institutions (much as Benjamin did): divorcing without separating, educating their two sons at home, giving away most of their possessions and living in what many would describe as poverty.

At the conclusion of my review of The Graduate, I wrote:

'Ben is not a particularly likeable character; his redeeming features are few. However, his apathy and disaffection are presented against some particularly loathsome, self-interested adult characters. This doesn't necessarily absolve him of the effects of his behaviours, but it does emphasise the assumptions made by many about what makes one successful or even worthy. Ben wants to take a better path; for him the 'road less travelled'. We aren't taken far enough along that road to know if he succeeds but wherever he ends up at least he is taking self-awareness, rather than purely self-interest, along with him.'

I was so intrigued to see that as my conclusion! Home School offers us just that chance, to travel further along the road with Benjamin, to see whether his ideals and self-awareness won out in the end.

Firstly, though, has he become any more likeable? He's still frustrating and still misguidedly idealistic, but he is older and has at least had the chance to put his beliefs into action, rather than just parade them as a bourgeois rebellion. The novel's title is as literal, and self-referential to Webb's experience, as it seems. Benjamin and Elaine have two sons, whom they are home-schooling. Ben's hatred of curriculum and institutionalised learning has not dimmed. This negativity is not emphasised, however - at least, not in the case of the Braddocks. Their friends, Goya and Garth - also home-schoolers, who live in the mountains, talk of auras and energies, and breastfeed their offspring well into childhood - are presented as the wacky ones.

Mrs Robinson exists in this novel as Nan, called across the country to help blackmail the principal who has insisted that the boys come back to school. Benjamin and Elaine had revoked all contact with her, and she re-enters their lives as a conniving and destructive force. When Garth and Goya come to stay as well, the Robinsons' lives descend into the antithesis of the domestic bliss they had achieved.

It's a straightforward read: Webb's style has never been verbose, and as in The Graduate, he employs a lot of dialogue. It's wittier in this later book, with Benjamin and Elaine frequently engaging in marital sparring with canny wordplay. It's not a serious book though. Not that it's flimsy - it still has plenty to say and for all its flippancy is still carefully put together - but it is a book written for the author's need for personal closure, not for a publisher to close a deal.

Whether the French film company Canal elect to make a film version of the new instalment of 'their' characters remains to be seen. The Graduate had shock value in its time; the insurgency in this book is perhaps too intellectual to give a film the same punch.

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