!>/files/2007/11/0-380-81603-2.jpg(The Big U)! I can’t remember the last time I read an entire book in a day, but when I picked up Neal Stephenson’s 1984 debut novel in the afternoon I found that I kept coming back to it as the day wore on, only to finally finish it early in the morning. Staying up this late almost makes me feel like I’m back in college, and the subject matter certainly doesn’t hurt that view.
_The Big U_ begins as a straight satire of life at a big public university. The setting is American Megaversity, the campus of which is made up of one massive building — the Megaplex — 20 stories tall and spanning nine city blocks of an unnamed metropolis with an unsurprising resemblance to the Boston University environs. Stephenson effortlessly skewers pretty much every single aspect of college life, from a bureaucracy seized with political correctness disorder to asinine course requirements, uncaring students, a useless student government, and tenured faculty content to coast along.
As the story unfolds, characters end up interacting with radical student groups, strange religious cults, crazy academic departments, and a maintenance staff composed entirely of refugees from a Eastern European country with an unpronounceable name. And lets not even discuss the massive central cafeteria constructed to feed 20,000, with its huge pressurized vats of processed food pastes and enriched soy substitutes, or the complex battle plan used to respond quickly and efficiently to the ever-present threat posed by food fights.
What starts out as biting social satire, however, begins to take a disturbing turn as the fall semester ends and the spring semester begins. Events unfold in increasingly alarming and absurd ways, with lurid depictions of a society on the brink of madness, pushed over the edge by a massive worker’s strike in March that leads to anarchy and chaos. From here the book travels quickly from the shocking to the completely surreal, as a small rag-tag band of the sane (and less sane) struggling mightily to save themselves and others in the ensuing violence and chaos of a building besieged by warring factions, now inexplicably armed and heavily fortified.
Throughout the story, the Megaplex that houses the Big U serves as a physical manifestation of the repressive regime and the remarkable set of norms and attitudes that lead, through a lack of stimulus and independent thought on the part of the vast majority of the students, to a regression into a more primitive, suggestive state of being described by scholar Julian Jaynes as the “bicameral mind.” Stephenson plays on this “bicameral mind” concept as strange student cults form to worship washing machines, television sets, and huge neon billboards.
And of course there is the discovery of the deep, dark secret buried in the bowels of American Megaversity, a secret that involves strange mutant rats and toxic waste…
_The Big U_ is very much classic Stephenson, with his characteristic style and pacing. As his first published work, the characters come out less developed and the plot threads less well integrated than in his later novels. But while others may criticize this novel’s meandering story lines and major shifts in tone, I found the book a marvelous, hilarious, sad, rage- and tear-inducing glimpse at a society that might exist in a parallel universe. And taking logical scenarios to their extreme to see what might result is exactly what Stephenson does best. Now that _The Big U_ has been re-released, after 22 years as a mass-market paperback, it is easy to come by and worth picking up. Just don’t give it to anyone about to enter college. They might just decide its not worth the hassle.