Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Harvard Red Book

The first thing you need to know about the Red Book is that when Harvard graduates talk about it (which they do a lot), they’re not talking about Mao Zedong’s pamphlet of axioms. That is, they’re not talking about “The Little Red Book” but about The Big One, the one that lands at five-year intervals with the thud of a Manhattan phone directory on the doorstep of everyone who has ever graduated from the college, and keeps on arriving for as long as they live, whether they want it or not, a gift from the tireless alumni association.

This trance-inducing volume, a facebook that came before Facebook, consists of dispatches from graduates who have chosen to file and have evaded the terse message “last known address,” “address unknown” or (it doesn’t get terser) “died.”

The information includes the biographical basics — address, e-mail, occupation, spouse, children — and an account of their lives, often true, over the last half-decade. The tagline for Deborah Copaken Kogan’s new novel, “The Red Book,” sums it up: “There’s the story we tell the world, and then there’s the real story.” ...

A sometimes ghastly mix of covert self-congratulation, awkward confession and wry philosophizing undercut by heavy-handed irony, Red Book prose can be an exercise in confessional self-concealment. What often emerges, after several throat-clearing paragraphs, is that life has not invariably been so good, whether the author knows it or not; and it’s that feature — the truth inadvertently revealed — that makes these thick volumes so horribly fascinating.