Tag Archives: campus life

The Devil and Webster: Jean Hanff Korelitz

Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel The Devil and Webster is a witty, wise and topical look at life on at a small, prestigious college campus. Dean Naomi Roth, the first female president at Webster College, “one of the most selective colleges in the nation,” made her career by the delicate handling of a potentially explosive situation. She came to the attention of the Board of Trustees for the manner in which she dealt with the uproar among the residents of the all-female Radclyffe Hall. Problems began when a female resident, Nell changed her name to Neil, and started undergoing gender change treatments. The female residents wanted Neil out, but he wanted to stay. It was a hot subject, the press became involved and while Neil argued discrimination, according to the female housemates:

This is a case of male penetration of a designated women-only space.

With disaster diplomatically averted, Naomi, Webster’s “first dedicated professor of feminist and gender studies,” had all the proper credentials, including past activism and was subsequently made the next president. She loves her job, and her large mansion (courtesy of the college) but there are rumblings on the campus which grow into a major PR catastrophe, disrupt her life and bring her deepest beliefs under scrutiny and into question.

the devil and webster

Naomi’s troubles begin when students begin camping out at the Stump–historically the location for Webster student protests. The cause this time is student discontent over the very popular Professor Gall (a notoriously easy grader) not receiving tenure. Normally professors who don’t get tenure just quietly pack their bags and leave, but in the case of Professor Gall, students begin championing his cause by a building a camp at the Stump. Naomi knows that Gall hasn’t been granted tenure because he’s failed to publish and also because he’s committed the cardinal sin of plagiarism, but according to the legal department, she’s can’t publicly air these reasons.

The number of protestors at the Stump grows with students flooding in from other campuses. Parents begin complaining, the media gets involved and then all hell breaks loose….

In The Devil and Webster, author Jean Hanff Korelitz shows there are no sacred cows in academia. On one hand we have a college with a past which includes institutional racism and massive hypocrisy–an elite school in which money talks to the unacknowledged competitive admissions process, and a number of disenfranchised students are admitted and yet are not supposed to feel ‘token.’ Also addressed, very subtly, is the way in which sometimes violent (even murderous) revolutionary cred can trump academic achievements–this in the most established of establishments.  And there’s another issue of ‘genteel’ protests–protests that make everyone (the participants and the establishment) feel enlightened and ‘involved.’

Whatever cause or grievance brought Webster students to the Stump, what happened once when they got there was always pretty much the same: a clear statement of purpose, a plainly identified leader, and lines of communication smartly established with Webster’s president, whoever he was at the time, after which that president would at least pretend to consider the students’ demands or sympathize with their feelings. But then, once the protesters had picketed a trustees’ retreat or a commencement to emphasize their point, the students would always just … go away.

In the protest under scrutiny, student leader Omar doesn’t play by these genteel rules; he plays dirty, and Naomi finds the old methods of dealing with students doesn’t work in Omar’s case. …

This rich and topical novel skewers academia, its highly competitive selection process, along with the wealthy who buy an ‘authentic,’ culturally aware experience for their children that raises consciousness but only safely within their economic boundaries. The book argues that in the current campus culture of identify and identification, division inevitably results:

A basketball player from Georgia or a robotics whiz from northern New Jersey? An equestrian who’d bring her own horse (and a strongly hinted at donation to campus) or a waif from Bangladesh who was being sponsored by a famous tech philanthropist? How could you weigh innovation against opportunity? How could you put a value on simple security-the experience of growing up in a stable society with guaranteed schooling-when others had no such thing?

The author has fun with all sides of the debate here. From Naomi listening to NPR and Garrison Keillor’s “narcotic” voice while serving her daughter “humanely euthanized fish in good conscience, to old-school Professor Russell who believes the protest is “the inevitable result of years of capitulation to liberal idiocy.” While the figures of both Omar and Gall remain disappointingly murky, the author raises many issues pertinent to the nepotism, privilege, politics and mission of university campuses.

Review copy

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The Death of the Author: Gilbert Adair

“Reader, I tell a lie.”

Gilbert Adair’s Love and Death on Long Island  features a reclusive author who fell in love with an American heart-throb, and after enjoying this dark tale of obsession, I turned to Adair’s The Death of the Author. This book also features another middle-aged, bachelor author, but this time it’s Leopold Sfax, a man whose egomania exceeds even that of Giles De’Ath in Love and Death on Long Island. Giles De’Ath looks positively humble and congenial next to the malignant Leopold Sfax, a smug, celebrity professor who is enthroned at New Harbor, one of America’s most prestigious Ivy League schools. Sfax is a philosopher, theorist and critic best known for The Theory–an approach to criticism which has dominated campuses across the country since the 80s. Sfax is “the most celebrated critic in the United States,” and with The Theory applied to literature, “the Author was to find Himself declared well and truly dead.”

I had demonstrated that it was for the text to ‘write’ its author rather than vice versa, the presence of a human sensibility somehow embedded with that language, within that text, had at last been understood for what it truly was: an absence, a void. The old and handy pedagogical dichotomies, the so-called binary oppositions that had once served to authenticate the truth and completeness of the Author’s interior universe–identity and difference, nature and culture, self and society–had at last been reversed or dissolved.

The book opens with Sfax meeting Astrid, a “flickeringly brilliant if too conventionally focused” former graduate student, who tells him she plans to write his biography. Sfax, our first person narrator, is obviously not thrilled by the proposition and tells her that he will cooperate but that she will not ‘get’ him–that no one ever has. Perhaps that reaction isn’t too surprising from a critical theorist, or is there something else afoot? Something far more sinister? How much of Sfax, paradoxically, lies in his theory?

I proposed that, again, in every text, there would fatally arrive what I called an aporia, a terminal impasse, a blank brick wall of impenetrability, an ultimatum of indetermination, when its self-contradictory meanings could no longer be permitted to coexist in harmony and its fundamental ‘undecidability’ would undermine for ever the reader’s most fundamental suppositions.

Following the meeting with Astrid, Sfax begins to tell his own story, and yet even as the narrative of reinvention flows, holes appear in Sfax’s past–his life in France during the Occupation, the disappearance of a friend, his decision to move to America with “its bright patchwork of opportunity, its whole candid candied hugeness,” his humble beginnings in a book shop and his leap into academia with “the chance to no longer toil in some obscure store, handling other man’s books the way a bank teller must handle other men’s money.”

the-death-of-the-author

That’s as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss of this slim novel of 135 pages, but I will say that if you enjoy novels about campus life and academic skullduggery, you should try this novel. Obviously Gilbert Adair has fun here (referencing Barthes) with this tale of university competitiveness, backstabbing academics and the unassailable qualities of dominant theories that hold academic disciplines in thrall. Even Giles De’Ath from Love and Death on Long Island is mentioned here in a passing reference to being an advocate of the Theory.

Adair, who breaks through that fourth wall, has a marvellous way with words which trickles down through his insufferable, snotty narrator. Here’s Sfax’s great enemy in the department, a hapless, harmless fellow named Herbert Gillingwater:

a kind of Peter Pan in reverse, never known to have been young. Indeed, his mousy nicotine-stained moustache and frankly sepia beard impressed one as older even than he was, deeply unappetizing hand-me-downs from some ancient parent; and it was claimed of him, an old maid of a bachelor, that if the striation of the corduroy suits he wore in all weathers looked as raggedly corrugated as it did, it was that he would freshen it simply by plunging it every six months or so into a sinkful of boiling water and detergent.

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Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

“Haven’t you noticed how we all specialize in what we hate most?”

Thanks to the reissue of Lucky Jim by New York Review books, I decided on a reread–something I do occasionally with books that I’ve especially liked. The lure of this re-read can be explained by my inordinate passion for the Campus novel, my admiration for Kingsley Amis, and my fondness for NYRB in general. It’s been years since I first came across Lucky Jim, and I remember that I found it to be one of the funniest novels I’d ever read.

The intro written by Keith Gessen made the purchase worthwhile (plus my old copy has gone astray). Gessen writes with a light comic touch combined with an understanding of Amis’s early struggles and a good grasp of the humiliations suffered by anyone trying to get their foot in the door of academia. Gessen begins with a description of Amis and Philip Larkin:

Lucky Jim is a young man’s book, in fact the book of two young men. They weren’t exactly angry young men, but they were extremely irritable. College friends with similar backgrounds, they had graduated from both Oxford and the Second World War to find themselves in an England that was in terminal decline. It was bankrupt. It was losing the overseas possessions that had once been its pride, and the people in charge were snobs and incompetents. Worst of all, no one seemed to appreciate the young men’s genius: neither the women they met nor the publishers to whom they sent their work.

That’s the first wonderful paragraph that both sets the tone for the novel and makes the point that the relationship between Amis and Larkin became the genesis for Lucky Jim–a comic novel in which the protagonist is a “hybrid” of the two men. Included are a few hilarious extracts from letters Amis wrote to Larkin with their included digs at academia, and here we see the frustration felt by the fictional Jim Dixon. Amis and Larkin obviously chafed at the constraints imposed by academic life, and the invention of the game, ” ‘horsepissing,’  in which they’d replace words from classic texts with obscenities” is evidence of their rebellion within the ranks. And it’s this sort of rebellion that explains the duality of the behaviour of the novel’s protagonist, Jim Dixon, for while he bows and scrapes to ensure his continued employment at the university, he also actively sabotages his efforts.

The novel begins with Jim Dixon trying–somewhat unsuccessfully–to pin Professor Welch to an offer of tea at his home. It’s not that Dixon really wants to go for tea since this means having to endure Welch’s mind-numbingly boring company, but it’s a politically wise engagement for a young man who wishes to impress his boss and hopes to stay teaching medieval history at the university at which he’s tentatively employed for two years. Welch, a university fossil, is a powerful individual whose nod of approval will go a long way. This is a frightening prospect as Welch prefers to waffle on about his recorder playing or madrigal singing rather than discuss Dixon’s future at the university. Dixon finds it impossible to steer Welch onto the desired subject–let alone extract two coherent sentences from the man. Although, of course, Welch isn’t quite as deranged as he pretends to be. The waffling, the indecision, the rambling, barely coherent sentences are a modus operandi frequently employed by those fossilized professors who are firmly entrenched in the halls of academia. Here’s a wonderful example of Jim trying to have a conversation with Welch on that ever-important topic of publication:

‘Yes, that Caton chap who advertised in the T.L.S. a couple of months ago. Starting up a new historical review with an international bias, or something. I thought I’d get in straight away. After all, a new journal can’t very well be bunged up as far ahead as all the ones I’ve…’

‘Ah yes, a new journal might be worth trying. There was one advertised in the Times Literary Supplement a little while ago. Paton or some such name the editor fellow was called. you might have a go at him, now that it doesn’t seem as if any of the more established reviews have got room for your … effort. let’s see now; what’s the exact title you’ve given it?’

Dixon looked out of the window at the fields wheeling past, bright green after a wet April. it wasn’t the double-exposure effect of the last minute’s talk that had dumbfounded him, for such incidents formed the staple material of Welch colloquies; it was the prospect of reciting the title of the article he’d written. It was a perfect title, in that it crystallized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funeral parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw on non-problems. Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance. ‘In considering this strangely neglected topic,’ it began. This what neglected topic? this strangely what topic? His thinking all this without having defiled and set fire to the typescript only made him appear to himself as more of a hypocrite and fool. ‘Let’s see,’ he echoed Welch in a pretended effort of memory: ‘oh yes; The Economic Influence of Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450-1485.’

That quote is one of my favourites from the book as it captures Jim’s frustration (which he can do little about) and the niggling feeling that he’s a fraud since he cannot, in all honesty, believe that his chosen topic is anything less than catatonically boring and hardly relevant to the world outside of the university walls. But that’s the brilliant thing about academia: find some obscure topic which is obscure for a reason, and then write about it convincingly as though you’ve uncovered something that will rock the world to its foundations.

The novel is concerned with Dixon’s antics as he tries to ensure his future teaching History, but there’s a subconscious element to Dixon which, paradoxically, actively works against him, and it’s through this strain that the novel’s humour emerges as we see Dixon actively sabotage his own bowing and scraping efforts to please Welch. Dixon manages to get himself invited to the Welch home for the weekend, but since he knows he won’t be able to stand (read ‘behave‘) the company for the entire time, he arranges for a roommate to call with an ’emergency’ that requires his presence back home. The weekend at Professor Welch’s home repeatedly illustrates Dixon’s inability to fit in. He gets drunk and trashes his room, and in order to cover up the damage he enlists the help of Christine, the girlfriend of his sworn enemy, pretentious, insufferable artist Bertrand Welch, who just happens to be the son of the man who can make or break Jim Dixon’s career.

For most of the story, Jim seems to be trapped in his own life. He’s frantic to impress Welch, a man he cannot admire; he’s not in the least attracted to neurotic fellow academic Margaret but still dallies with her as she seems within his league. He also tries to evade the earnest questions of serious student, Michie, who has the audacity of having an extremely attractive girlfriend and the annoying habit of trying to pin Jim down to concrete study descriptions. Does it escape Jim’s attention that he’s as wily and slippery with Mitchie as Welch is, in his turn, with Dixon?

Lucky Jim, published in 1954, was Kingsley Amis’s first book, and what a brilliant start to a glorious career. Apart from all the humour, it’s a significant book. Here’s Kingsley Amis, from a humble background, a scholarship boy, who made good and dragged himself up by his bootstraps into the hallowed halls of St John’s College, Oxford. Was he grateful to find the door open? Was he flattered to be invited inside that ivory tower to join the echelons of England’s Elite, or did he discover that no matter what, he was always going to be the awkward guest at the table?

Lucky Jim is a story of conformity, a story about how one man tries to fit in the confines of a career culture that part of him has no desire to belong to. We realise this, of course, before Jim does, and that’s what makes his half-hearted efforts and his self-sabotage so funny.  If he wants to impress Welch, he should learn to play the recorder and demand more madrigal singing. He should settle down and calmly and methodically court Margaret. He should flatter Bertrand and stop poaching Christine. But, of course, Jim can do none of these things, and this is where the novel’s wonderful humour can be found. Jim knows what he should do, but there’s part of him that rebels against conformity and longs to break free of the constraints imposed by an academic life. I, for one, identified with Jim, and so cheered him on through all of his delightful scrapes, hilariously bad behaviour, and unfulfilled revenge fantasies.

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The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

From the reviews I’ve seen of Chad Harbach’s debut novel, The Art of Fielding, it seems that a certain portion of readers came away disgruntled, and the reason for that appears to lie in the perception that the plot contained either too much or too little baseball. Some readers apparently felt misled when they discovered that the book wasn’t about baseball at all–while others felt that there was too much baseball detail. Well you can’t please all the people all the time, right? For the record, I read this novel for its campus setting.

The major plot thread of The Art of Fielding follows the relationship between two men: shy, talented Henry Skrimshander, a South Dakota native who’s noted for his tenacity by Westish College student Mike Schwartz during a game played in Peoria. Henry, at 17 is a “scrawny novelty” who plays shortstop. He’s from a poor family with no career plans other than to pick up a job at the same metalworking shop as his father, and perhaps, if he’s lucky, attend a few classes at the local junior college.  Henry is flabbergasted to find that with Mike pulling a few strings, he’s attending Wisconsin’s Westish College. After astonishingly successful college games, Henry finds himself being courted by scouts who throw out phenomenal promises of riches to come. But after an accident which involves Henry’s gay roommate, Owen, Henry loses his fragile confidence.

While Henry’s star rises, Mike’s hopes plummet, and Henry’s success seems to be in direct proportion to his mentor, Mike’s failures. Mike Schwartz’s sports days seem doomed due to a series of injuries which are compounded by his failure to get into law school, and as Henry’s career prospects wax, Mike finds himself wondering about his own career path.  Schwartz, who’s a college sophomore when he first spots Henry seems to be much older, more experienced and more mature, but as the future careers of these two friends alter, their unlikely relationship is threatened.

While all this is going on, another thread emerges involving college president, Guert Affenlight, and there’s a marvellous section detailing Affenlight’s obsession with Herman Melville and how the discovery of some ancient papers altered Affenlight’s career path. At 60, Affenlight,  a perennial bachelor who can claim an estranged daughter through a brief, youthful liaison, jumps off the deep end and risks his career for a secret love affair. To add to the drama, Affenlight’s daughter, Pella runs away from San Francisco and her much older, affluent, controlling architect husband. She moves back in with her father, enrolls in classes and promptly gets involved in the friendship between Henry and Mike.

The Art of Fielding, which screams for a film adaptation incidentally, is for this reader, a very American novel with its focus on the underdog who is given a chance to succeed. There was one point when I could almost hear the Rocky theme song blaring in the background, but with that complaint aside, for this reader, enjoyment came, oddly enough, not from the many male characters in the novel, but in the throughly delightful Pella–the president’s daughter who runs away from her husband and seems hell-bent on gluing herself to another male. One wonderful scene takes place between Pella and her husband, David, and it’s in this scene that the author shows us how we revert back to established patterns of behaviour, these familiar grooves scored deeply into terminally flawed relationships. Another delightful scene is a veritable Comedy of Errors with Affenlight adroitly avoiding a liaison with a suitable attractive woman who has no idea that her quarry has his sights set elsewhere.

At the heart of the novel is the relationship between Mike and Henry–two contrasts in physique. This story thread explores not only the relationship between two very different males, but also the human desire for success, and the point at which all of us realise that we are not particular showstoppingly gifted and talented. Mike sublimates his hunger for talent into his hopes for Henry:

All his life Schwartz had yearned to possess some single transcendent talent, some unique brilliance that the world would consent to call genius. Now that he’d seen that kind of talent up close, he couldn’t let it walk away.

But of course, there comes a point when the protegé disappoints or must move out from under his mentor’s shadow. This story element is the crux of the novel.  Throughout the novel, baseball Hall of Fame’s Luis Aparicio’s fictional book The Art of Fielding is referenced by Henry who treats it as his bible. 

The glimpses of the liberal, yet confining narrow campus life are seen in Affenlight’s perennial student lifestyle and his unquestioned devotion to all things Westish. Flashes of the youthful Affenlight are easy to connect to the much older man who seizes what he sees as a last chance to experience love–no matter the cost. This slice of life tale is handled deftly, with generosity to its subjects as both drama and tragedy strikes. Overall an enjoyable read but not without its flaws. In addition to the Rocky aspects of the tale which I disliked, one action collectively taken by the characters towards the end of the novel was unbelievable.

Author Chad Harbach apparently spent 10 years honing this novel, and in a bidding war, sold the book for ‘around’ $650,000. It’s nice to know that in these days of austerity, a first-time novelist can make a big score. Thanks to Kevin who bringing The Art of Fielding to my attention.

Review copy.

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