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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Alex Preston

How I Won a Nobel Prize by Julius Taranto review – skilful skewering

Julius Taranto: ‘interesting games’
Julius Taranto: ‘interesting games’. Photograph: Elena Seibert

There are many interesting games going on in Julius Taranto’s How I Won a Nobel Prize, a novel about art and politics that seeks to skewer the prim puritans of radical wokery and the sweaty dinosaurs of the right. Part of the joke is that it is written very clearly in the style of, and in deep engagement with, a canon that literary America is doing its best to forget: Roth, Bellow and Updike are the obvious models. What’s more, as if snubbing his nose at those who will be looking for reasons to take offence, Taranto, a white male (he’s a former lawyer), writes from the perspective of a young Jewish woman, Helen, a graduate student. He takes great and obvious pleasure in describing her sex life, with a passage about masturbation that might have come straight from the pen of Philip Roth.

The setup is a good one, letting the reader know exactly the kind of dark, satirical world we are now inhabiting. A financier, Buckminster Witherspoon Rubin, has been forced from his investment company for an unspecified offence. He has had to resign from the board of Yale. He has now bought an island off the coast of Maine. On it he has established a university, the Rubin Institute, Plymouth (RIP), centred around a vast skyscraper known as “the Endowment”, from which the founder can, on a clear day, literally look down on Yale. The institute is staffed by those who have, for reasons of politics or malfeasance, been excluded from traditional academia: “The Institute said: Give me your cancellees and deplorables, your preeminent deviants, we’ll take them!”

Helen is the protege of Perry Smoot, a Nobel prize-winning scientist and expert in high-temperature superconductors. Smoot has been exiled from Cornell for a “noncriminal infraction”. Helen and Hew, her vegan technologist husband, must follow. Helen is clear where her priorities lie: solving the climate-critical question of how to move electricity more efficiently through wires. Taranto is excellent on the science here. There’s a lovely passage in which a jaded Roth-like novelist asks Helen to help him with some scientific passages in his latest book. Writers should know far more about their subject than they ever put on the page, he says: “You can always tell when a writer suggests knowledge he doesn’t in fact possess.” It’s a wink from Taranto, whose deep dive into the world of electromagnetics is totally convincing.

While Helen and Perry try to save the world, Hew is increasingly uncomfortable on the island. He goes off to attend marches in which the unfocused Action for Justice seeks to work out exactly what it is they are marching for and against. He’s caught up in a violent counter-protest during which the sinister Knights of the Right murder several of the protesters. Meanwhile, Helen works on. I kept thinking of Lionel Shriver, particularly her dystopian The Mandibles, while I was reading How I Won a Nobel Prize. The ending of Taranto’s novel, though, is more upbeat and hopeful than Shriver’s perennial bleakness. It feels like a bit of a cop-out when everything leading up to it has been so deliciously dark, but this is nonetheless a debut of great skill and admirable complexity.

How I Won a Nobel Prize by Julius Taranto is published by Picador (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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