For his first novel, Edmontonian Michael Hingston takes his readers into the amusing, ironic and sometimes dark world of the university newspaper. In The Dilettantes, we follow Alex Belmont, the features editor for The Peak, as he ponders his place in both the newsroom and the world looming outside the boundaries of Simon Fraser University.
Alex, who is about to graduate, finds his whole world threatened when the daily newspaper, Metro, starts encroaching on The Peak’s turf. What follows is a desperate attempt to stop the inevitable, without much, if any, acknowledgement from the characters that every newspaper in the country is going through the same loss of readers and ad revenue. “Theirs was a generation of secondhand irony. They’d inherited it, like an old cardigan, and usually couldn’t define or even recognize it in any meaningful way,” Hingston reflects near the beginning of the novel.
Hingston intentionally keeps his characters painfully self-absorbed – a stinging reminder of everyone’s situation at one point or another. While Alex can be both insecure and smug about the superior intellect he believes he possesses (compared to his classmates, at least), it’s easy to relate to what he’s going through – panic at the thought of the transition from sheltered university life to the “real world.” Alex is representative of an entire generation – perhaps even every generation, some would argue – and Hingston skewers him before allowing him a shot at redemption from his own self-loathing.
The novel also perfectly captures the university setting by making it clear that campus life – and the pizza, cheap beer and casual sex that come with it – isn’t without drawbacks. While you sometimes want to scream at the characters, you also root for them every step of the way, knowing they will eventually step into a world where they will realize most of the concerns they have had in the past four years are either unfounded or ironic.
Through his prose, Hingston manages to make readers nostalgic for the uncertainty, condescension, pub nights and sexual escapades that make up many adolescent university experiences, while simultaneously making us sigh with relief that those capricious days are now behind us. (Freehand Books, 267 pgs)