Don’t Look At Me, by Charles Holdefer, tells the story of Holly Winegarten, a young basketball star who, following injury, immerses herself in academia. She shifts the focus and determination necessary to succeed in sport onto her literature studies only to realise after a few years that what seemed so vital in this insular world is just another hamster wheel for the ruthlessly ambitious. Belonging means moulding herself around what is expected within the supposedly hallowed sphere.
“only people who inhabited the university environment cared about its workings. The rest of the world didn’t give a damn.”
Holly discovers an affinity with Emily Dickinson, the poet’s words resonating strongly with a young woman who, despite being constantly stared at for her stature, has never felt seen for who she is. When she comes across some previously unpublished writing by Dickinson in the university archives, she is torn between wanting credit for the discovery and staying true to the person she aims to be.
There is both humour and pathos in Holly’s backstory. She comes from a loving family but, following her mother’s death, struggles to accept her stepmother. She tries to support her younger brother despite his apathy and selfishness. In order to fit in at the university Holly adopts the complex language used by her peers and teachers. This leads to her father asking that she speak like a human being, making Holly feel he does not appreciate what now matters to her.
“Of course she wasn’t expending hours of intellectual energy on something trivial. Power, identity, our relations to other creatures – these were important questions!”
Literature studies cannot focus on one author and Holly must read widely, including authors whose work she does not enjoy. I was amused by her take on Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby: “this brontosaurus turd of a novel”. It is good to be reminded that reading is subjective and no texts are must reads – although the literati this book pokes fun at may struggle to agree.
Holly must also learn to submit work written in the style her tutors will grade highly rather than giving free rein to her own critical insights. All of this strips the gloss from her desire to progress with her studies, especially when she observes how those around her manipulate and kowtow in order to succeed in academic circles.
In her personal life Holly harbours a natural desire for intimacy, although not enough to compromise her ambitions. She makes mistakes with who she can trust which leads to conflict professionally. As the denouement approaches the tension ratchets up. The ending is satisfying as the author avoids any twists in aspects of a character so expertly crafted.
The story being told is engaging and well structured but what raises the book above others is the balance of wit and wisdom in the exploration of the human psyche. The reader is drawn into Holly’s world and experiences with her the successes and setbacks as she matures. The varied cast of characters offer comparison between what matters in academia and the outside world.
Just as Holly learns that language is powerful but need not be comprehensible only to the initiated, so the reader can enjoy a finely wrought tale that flows with ease. Don’t Look At Me has impressive breadth and depth but was also a pleasure to read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sagging Meniscus.