A Collective Review of The University

We received an email from author Calvin Wolf asking if we would review his new book The University, in which students sells shares of their future earnings in order to pay for college. We split the book up into parts and gave them to KmikeyM shareholders in order to generate this collective opinion.

Pages 13 to 25

by Abraham Ingle

Disclaimer: I am not a literary critic, and I have never reviewed a novel from a 13 page chunk. Such a structure cuts any work very little slack, and I found myself making critical judgments and knowing that they are not “fair.”

From what I can glean from my short section of The University, the book seems to be a thriller in the style of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. A professional (here ‘a local celebrity and writing “prof”‘ who is drawn into some kind of investigation. The author, Calvin Wolf, tells his story utilizing a wide range of characters. Characters in my segment include young professionals, a college dropout, political activists, and the President.

These characters are introduced in short chapters and scenes that dip in and out quickly, leaving little time for character development. My segment of the book was only 13 pages in length, so that should be taken with a grain of salt, but I found the characters bland and uninteresting. For instance, a nameless advisor to the president (many characters don’t get names - including the president) is described as “the pale-faced nerd.” This seemed a bit hard to believe for me. A lot of people want jobs reporting to the Commander in Chief, and there are plenty of people with both the technical and personal skills to fill that roll.

I was not only hung up on awkward characterizations, however, I also found myself stalling on awkward, clunky phrasing like “He was about out of his mind with boredom,” “heading back into the delicious fray of the popular Mexican restaurant,” and “He noticed that the buddy, like him, looked like an Abercrombie and Fitch advertisement. At least we’re not as pretty-boy as models.” Clunky sentences like these, and the abstracted characters left me not wanting to read more, and happy I was finished with The University.

Pages 35 to 50

by Beau Gunderson

I felt more like an editor than a reviewer. There’s a completely broken sentence on the first page of my section. Some of the writing was so detailed as to be distracting, some of it lacked so much detail as to be distracting. At one point an explosion occurs. The only description to mark that the explosion happened is this: “the explosion was deafening at close range”, placed after the character (the dean of a university) laments drinking too much whiskey. The dean has been letting the police herd him around but when another employee takes the lead he bristles at the loss of his “alpha male” status. The president in this world uses ethnic slurs and is also a fan of whiskey. There’s a character named Tom Haverford and I couldn’t not think of him as Aziz Ansari.

Overall I’m not impressed. What I did manage to learn about the characters in these 13 pages didn’t make me like them. I wanted the writing to be better edited, tighter. Reading the section I did didn’t leave me wanting to learn more about the events of the book or how it ends.

Pages 94 to 106

by Andrew Quinn

After reading through these few pages, I already went to Amazon and bought a copy of the full book. It is tough to get the full picture of what is going on without the other pages, but the part I found most interesting was the Politician’s interview with the professor (pages 103–105). Within these pages, the Politician probes the professor on what the Human Capital Market is about and the reservations the professor has about the project. I personally spent a lot of time thinking about the possibility of human capital markets while in college and do think, if structured correctly, something could (and to some extents, already does) exist. I found the professor’s answers spot on in regards to some of the same reservations I had come up with as well. Inequality and favoritism is hard to avoid in such a market. Without the rest of the book and further details of how the Human Capital Market is structured, it is hard to know what other issues are addressed, but I will be curious to see how insider trading (which based on the pages I’ve read seems to be occurring), how/if shorting is allowed and how much of a role shareholders are allowed to take on in helping graduating students succeed in finding a well-paying job out of college.

Pages 125 to 136

by Whitney Kemper

The novel reads as a peek into a mind steeped in paranoia and conspiracy theories. Hank Hummel is an English professor at a small Anytown, USA liberal arts college. Immediately upon being introduced to the reader it is clear that Hank is severely unhinged from reality. Facebook posts from his flu stricken neighbors become ominous warnings that they have been kidnapped. A visit by police officers investigating a gas leak becomes an opportunity to pry for clues about the international super terrorist Pastorius and his recent comings and goings in the sleepy town of Midland. There is an overwhelming sense that Hank’s obsessions will soon come to an unpleasant head as he is firmly convinced that something very bad is going to happen to him very soon and he would do anything to stop it.

Pages 193 to 205

by Brian Lambert

Thanksgiving is here, and wouldn’t you know it, so is a madman with a nuke. He’s kidnapped a man and his family, murdered a couple of people and managed to alert the authorities through a cleverly delivered email.

The premise is undeniably solid and has the benefit of playing on everyone’s ever present fear that some crazy person is going to blow up Midland, Texas. This, along with the slightly racist overtones towards Hispanics, makes for a classic page-turner, of which even Clive Cussler would have been proud to write.

Pages 206 to 217

by Nick Lambert

“Donuts for everyone.”

In an attempt to celebrate Thanksgiving, the President decided that eating the tasty treat was the best way to, not only lighten the mood of his secret service men, but also distract himself from the, apparent, imminent threat of a terrorist attack.

In these 11 pages, the author allows the reader to feel hungry, while at the same time, getting across the tension that the secret service are feeling, while KNOWING that an attack of some sort is out of their control and coming. The pages then continue to describe a few random events involving a nervous dean, (who isn’t at all excited to meet the president), a secret service officer that likes to talk to himself, several terrorist characters that vary in description, and a nuke. The author shows a lot of diversity here by having terrorists that include, “A tall man in a dark-colored suit,” “Two pasty old white guys in Thanksgiving sweaters,” and “An attractive brunette.”

After a few pages though, the situation takes a disastrous turn with the reveal of an email written by the head terrorist. The note lays out the fact that all involved are expected to carry out their duties that very day and if they failed, all their personal info would be released to the media. Not quite as ominous a threat as maybe the author had wanted, since all modern personal info is open to the public nowadays, but I understood where he was going with that.

The story then abruptly transitions to the next page by leaving the reader with:

“taking in everything from the perfect glass to the glossy brochures to the comfortable waiting….”

Pages 162 to 174

by M. Ritchey

In this section, a VIP group is given a tour of a top-secret facility on the campus of a large state university in West Texas. Affiliated with the University, but also clearly being run separately (as indicated by the armed guards keeping civilians out), the facility houses the offices of a company called the “Human Capital Market,” or “HumCap.” We are somewhat loosely in the point of view of a character called The Politician, who seems to think HumCap is a racket, judging by his numerous bitter italicized asides. The group is shown a promo video for HumCap, in which all the tropes of sentimental contemporary advertising are deployed (child frolicking in autumn leaves; handsome all-American college graduate succeeding in business) to sell HumCap’s plan to capitalize on the future earnings of debt-enslaved college students. The business plan of the company involves paying for a student’s education in return for 30% of the student’s future earnings. Using familiar rhetoric about the company’s incentive to help students succeed, the advertisement upholds HumCap as the solution to the current student debt crisis.

Upstart.com allows people to “invest” in those with high earning potential.

Like the best sci-fi, this scenario feels frighteningly close to home. It would be unsurprising to discover, in fact, that just such a business model was already being put into place by slavering corporate times in some grim glassy office in New York. Thus, I found the HumCap description disturbing and compelling, in spite of the somewhat clunky prose.

A note on the prose: the author struggles with word repetition that sometimes leaves their prose feeling more like a Japanese poem than science fiction. At several points in the narrative, the same word is used again and again in sentence after sentence. Said sentences are short and extremely literal. They put me in mind of the diary of Samuel Pepys, which was written before the Romantic Era and thus contains almost no metaphors or fanciful descriptions. Aside from the fact that female characters tend to be described primarily by hair color (excepting the several who are identically referred to only as “the attractive woman”), there does not seem to be much attention paid to adjectives, and sentence after sentence unfolds highly rational descriptions primarily of actions. Nonetheless, there is a verve to the narrating voice that keeps one interested; I was particularly compelled by the brief sequence involving a character called The Wraith, who kills five cartel enforcers without batting an eye.

After the HumCap scene, we meet a barrage of characters, and we realize that something dire seems to be afoot, concerning some dead neighbors, a man planting a bug on another man, and a sheriff who is stressed out because the town is about to go crazy. Another protagonist drives to the mall to meet his wife and child, who the sheriff has instructed to stay silent on the subject of the town going crazy, because women will put anything on Facebook.

In conclusion, I found this section intriguing. It appears to be a parable about the dangers of unfettered neoliberal capitalism, an excellent subject for dystopian fiction.

Pages 218 to 230

by Curt Merrill

In a world where North Korea has recently tested nuclear weapons, the threat of a dirty bomb detonating in the U.S. feels more real than it did just a few years ago. On page 218 of “The University,” the threat is imminent and the action is well underway.

Hector Rodriguez and Hummel are tasked by the president to prevent someone called “The Wraith” from completing his detonation. The drama unfolds through the eyes of several characters, providing a multi-dimensional view of the developing action.

Some of the action seems superfluous, though, such as an apparent presidential debate. The president is introduced right at the beginning of page 218. He issues a few orders and disappears for most of the next 12 pages. Only at the end does he return, but with little impact on the story.

At the closing of page 230, the climax is close but the author chooses a cliffhanger ending. Perhaps the author plans a subsequent volume in which to conclude, or maybe the open ending is intended to force the reader to complete the story, a kind of Rorschach Test about the role and ability of the government’s security apparatus.

In Summary

by K. Mike Merrill

This has been one of the most interesting uses of the shareholders since I asked them if I should get a vasectomy. All the shareholders donated their time to read their 12 or 13 pages. We’d love to do this again, but we are capitalists, so someone would have to give a share of K5M to each person. Right now that’s only $4.80 so it’s a pretty good deal.