Review: These Violent Delights (2020) by Micah Nemerever

At the Intersection of Dark Academia and Toxic Inter-dependency

Published September 15, 2020 by Harper

460 pages

I wanted to start off my first written review with a verse from the Bible. The Book of Corinthians. And as someone who has not fully practiced a religion, let alone the one I was raised in since I was twelve years old – I hope to draw some sort of parallel or throughline to the book mentioned above.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.

This verse is typically read at wedding receptions or even at the altar, before the priest/pastor/ordaining minister (for those who are religious).

I wanted to introduce the review with a quote from the Bible to compare and contrast an idealized, albeit religious take on love (perhaps an unadulterated, untainted version), with the kind of love presented in the These Violent Delights.

Have you ever loved someone so much, that you were willing to cross personal and moral boundaries to prove your love for them? Delved into the unfathomable? These Violent Delights (2020) is told from a third-person, limited perspective, and is a poignant, exacting, and harrowing portrait of obsession, academic rivalry, and the sometimes isolating nature of queerness within academia and high-education settings. That’s my formal pitch of the novel. If I were pitching this book to a friend or someone in my life? I’d use the following words to describe my experience with our two main characters Julian and Paul; toxic, unsettling, passionate, cruel, insular.

Taking place in the 1970s, 17-year old and working-class Paul Fleischer is reeling from the death of his father upon his entry into a unnamed university in Pennsylvania. He meets fellow student, and our other protagonist, the wealthy and cultured Julian Fromme in an Intro Psychology course. Paul is immediately intrigued and drawn in by Julian, seemingly epitomizing everything that he is not. The interest is proven to be mutual on Julian’s end, and soon both boys are shown to become inseparable, intertwined. So much so, that the crux of the novel builds toward an act of unspeakable violence, as the conventions of the ‘dark academia’ genre suggest.

If you have been circulating (online) discourse specifically related to dark academia, this is a book that frequents those circles. I read another review that defined this novel as a lovechild of The Secret History by Donna Tartt and Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman, and I would absolutely agree with this assessment. Although I have not read the former – it is something that I want to get to this fall and hopefully critically assess and engage in (let alone the fact that it is a very highly anticipated book I’ve been meaning to read), as I do this novel – I can most certainly say that the novel does contain a “literary fiction-esque” queer (M/M) relationship. This is not a romance. This is not a fluffy, light-hearted read about two young men in university who start out as enemies/rivals and over the course of the novel, end up as lovers. It is not romantic in its depictions of isolation, or the literary ‘coming-of-age’ trope. It is about finding yourself in academia, and an often times dark look at the ways in which we place and elevate personal stakes in other people (and the dizzying ways this is exacerbated or exaggerated). It’s about zeitgeist of the 1970s and the moral consequences of the Vietnam War. It’s about queerness within the aforementioned zeitgeist. It’s a commentary on the intersection of socio-economic class and power as told through the lens of academia.

Did I like this novel? In short, yes – with the caveat that it was not always entirely fun experience. For a debut novel, Nemerever’s prose is incredible and yet lacks any of the pretentious elitism that so is so often associated with the dark academia genre. I appreciated the lyrical prose on display here, especially given that this is a debut novel from the author. Some of my favourite quotes from the novel really capture the quality of writing here.

“It always makes me a little sad when you laugh,” Julian went on. “The way it sort of takes you by surprise. I love it, it has that sweet sincerity that’s the best part of you, but it kills me how you never seem to expect it. All I want to do is make you happy, and you’re the unhappiest person I’ve ever met.” (p. 344)

He would rather be cruel than weak, even if Julian found weakness easier to manage. (p. 354)

All they were – all they had ever been – was a pair of sunflowers who each believed the other was the sun. (p. 378)

If Julian had asked, he would have happily cut his chest open and handed over his heart, his lungs, every part of himself piece by piece. (p. 159)

So should you read this book? If you’re in the mood for a literary fiction, dark academia period-piece centering a toxic, obsessive, and oftentimes dark queer relationship between two academic rivals – then yes. It is not light reading, nor is it always enjoyable, and if you have particular sensitivities to certain triggers I would do a bit of research beforehand – but it is beautifully written, often times poetic in its prose and style, and an engaging reading experience nevertheless.

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