The opening pages of How I Won a Nobel Prize – the first novel by former lawyer Julius Taranto – are as sparky and fresh as any I’ve read in recent years. They introduce us to the fictional Rubin Institute, an academic establishment created, on an island off the East Coast of America, to take “the worst-behaved of great minds”, the geniuses brought low by cancel culture – or, if you prefer, by the consequences of their own follies. It’s “Sandals for scandals, with tax-exempt status”, where students are invited to “learn from geniuses, graduate sans debt, feel free to carry Mace”.
Telling us about the Institute is a young woman with a complicated interest in the place. Helen is a graduate student researching room-temperature superconductors: the stuff of legitimate excitement, which, if harnessed, could provide spectacular benefits in fields from computing power to energy. But talent is nothing without funding, and she’s drawn to the Institute because that’s where her supervisor Perry Smoot – a “big brilliant queer” – is heading, following a sex scandal of his own.
She’s wary of being surrounded by men with track records in sexual harassment. “It won’t be your a-- getting pinched,” she tells Perry. And her boyfriend Hew, a social-justice type, isn’t keen. But money talks, and Helen can’t resist the potential glory of solving the superconductor riddle. So off she goes with Hew to live at the Institute, where they meet its gifted but reviled residents: “We brushed by a podcaster who had defended his theoretical right to use the N-word when quoting song lyrics. He was talking to a classicist who had actually used the N-word and meant it.”
Conflict is the engine of fiction, and Taranto sets up lots of opportunities, ripe for a scandalous comedy of culture-clashes. We meet Rubin, the Institute’s founder, offering Helen whatever she wants to complete her research: “I will dump money on this problem if you tell me where to back up the truck.” But what does she want? Perhaps a connection with another cancelled resident, the Philip Roth-ish writer Leo Lens, who’s accused of betraying his family, fellow Jews, his mentor Saul Bellow and one-time fiancée Kathleen Turner, and for whom Helen unaccountably has “avid, libidinal” feelings. Add to these elements a “woke” activist group called Action for Justice, and the page is set for fireworks.
Yet they never quite detonate. As the novel goes on, you can sense Taranto struggling to work out what he wants to do with its premise. Along with the snappy lines, there are strong set-pieces, such as where Rubin sheds his nice-guy persona and becomes a villain we can believe in, and narrative surprises, like the truth about Perry’s sex scandal. And the general concept is a reminder to us all – whatever we think of “cancel culture” – that we stick too much to preformed beliefs. But the book shies away from enacting its central conflicts within the story, preferring to break out into convenient monologues on moral issues or chapters on the grinding details of Helen’s research. (By the end, you will know as much about superconductors as the Telegraph’s science correspondent, whether or not you want to.)
Worst of all, after setting up rival ideologies in such a comic style, How I Won a Nobel Prize fails to be truly outrageous. There’s nothing here to offend a reader of any sensible political stripe, and the worst aspects pale next to braver novels such as Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods (2012), in which a business supplies women as sexual outlets for its salesmen, or Timothy Ogene’s Seesaw (2021), which takes potshots at the fashion for black writers to be representatives for their culture. The most controversial this book gets, in today’s terms, is that Helen is a female voice written by a man.
The subplot with Leo Lens never really takes off, and one serious thread about a student’s rape sits uneasily with the rest of the story. That fun opening section was a hostage to fortune. By the time it ends, in an unexpectedly thrillerish way, How I Won a Nobel Prize seems less a satire of cancel culture than of debut novels that don’t know how to control their ideas.
How I Won a Nobel Prize is published by Little Brown and Company at £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books