Tag Archives: campus novel

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

Advertisements

11 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Korelitz Hanff Jean

The War Between the Tates by Alison Lurie

The unwelcome thought comes to Brian that two women who were in reasonably good shape when he met them are now, somewhat as a result of his actions, on the verge of nervous collapse.”

In Alison Lurie’s novel, The War Between the Tates (1974),the disintegration of a marriage is set against the backdrop of a society in flux with battles waged at home and abroad. Set in the late 60s, Feminism, a “conflict of generations,” sexual liberation, LSD,  abortions, the Vietnam War, and student protests are topical issues addressed in these pages, and the content conclusively seals this novel as an important read of the era. Not only does Alison Lurie explore some of the controversial elements within American society, but she also examines the fate of one family as traditional morality is challenged by a new value system.

The War between the TatesAt 39, Erica Tate, who’s written, illustrated and published a handful of children’s books, is a bored housewife and a frazzled mother of two demanding, obnoxious teenagers:  Jeffrey 15 and Matilda almost 13. The Tates moved to upstate New York eight years previously after  husband Brian secured a position in the Political Science department at Corinth University. They purchased a “deserted, sagging gray farmhouse miles out of town,” and they seemed to be set for an idyllic upper-middle class life. That life is under assault, and the onslaught simultaneously comes from several directions: the children are no longer sweet little tots,  and the family’s peaceful isolation is violated by the emergence of a new housing estate with uniformly built ranch homes which spoil the Tates’ view–effectively “blocking their sunset.” But that seems minor when compared to the rot which has set into the Tates’ marriage. In spite of moderate academic success, at 46, Brian who holds the prestigious “Sayle Chair of American Diplomacy” is nonetheless a “dissatisfied and disappointed man.” Brian Tate always imagined that he’d have a career similar to that of his hero, diplomat, adviser and Political Scientist George Kennan. Although Brian is admired and respected by his colleagues and is a frequent public speaker on American foreign policy, Brian considers himself a “failure.”

Why he asks himself sourly, is he speaking on foreign policy instead of helping to make it? Why does he still discuss other men’s theories, instead of his own?

 Brian is in middle-age and nursing secret disappointments, when a young Social Psychology graduate student named Wendy Gahaghan enters his life : “a small hippie-type blonde in his graduate seminar on American Institutions.” Clearly infatuated with her professor, the emotionally volatile Wendy lays siege to Brian, and while he stops short of telling her to go away and mentally fabricates a number of reasons/excuses for not having an affair, the truth is that he finds her complete worship of everything he says and does flattering. This appeal to his ego eventually breaks down his flimsy defenses, and Brian begins an affair with Wendy. To Brian, Wendy, whose ambition is to “go into the wilderness and live in a commune based on mutual cooperation and mystical philosophy”  is a refreshing change. To Wendy, Brian is a “great man, a hero” and she believes that the book he’s trying to complete will change America’s foreign policy and possibly even save the planet.

And Brian would look across the table–or the bed at his wife, who had never given herself completely to anyone; who merely lent herself. Graciously and sometimes enthusiastically, yes. But like an expensive library book, Erica had to be used with care and returned on time in perfect condition.

This frequently funny campus novel explores academic life through the fallout of Brian Tate’s affair. Erica’s best friend, Danielle is a casualty of divorce, and she thinks that “men will do anything they can get away with.” With her ex, the libidinous Leonard, a former Corinth professor back in New York, Danielle begins teaching French part time, engages in an extraordinary number of sexual encounters, and is part of a “campus discussion group named Women for Human Equality Now; Brian refers to them as hens.”  Soured by men and at the same time exploring new boundaries to her behavior, Danielle’s “new hobby-horse [is] the awfulness of men.”  Once Erica considered Danielle tainted by her marital experience with Leonard, but in light of Brian’s affair, she finds herself agreeing with her friend’s opinion of men–a sex who will “do anything they can get away with.”

As the relationship between Brian and Wendy becomes suddenly much more complicated, Erica find herself faced with a moral dilemma. The decision she makes involves a large chunk of the story, and this is one of those books in which the reader becomes silently involved through questioning what we would do if we were in Brian or Erica’s shoes. Much of the novel concerns people behaving badly: there’s Brian lying about the affair, Wendy who supposedly wants to merely breathe the same air as Brian, and Erica who begins to feel ostracized by the academic community yet stalked by men who think she’s desperate for a quickie. Meanwhile social unrest and student protests against the Vietnam War hit the Corinth campus right around the time a group of militant feminists decide that one misogynistic professor has gone too far….

The War Between the Tates has a fascinating subtext regarding perceptions. Brian for example, is seen as some sort of god by the gormless Wendy, but Erica’s opinion of Brian has hit an all-time low. Erica perceives herself as an attractive, much-sought after woman, until the mirror shows a reflection that is far from Erica’s idealized image of herself. Erica flounders for a great deal of the book, and that’s partly because she’s no longer sure who she’s supposed to be.

That is the worst thing about being a middle-aged woman. You have already made your choices, taken the significant moral actions of your life long ago when you were inexperienced. Now you have more knowledge of yourself and the world; you are equipped to make choices, but there are none left to make.

Having lost her identity as a happy wife and mother, Erica feels unsure about what’s left and she feels like a “character in a cheap farce.” Danielle drags Erica off to feminist meetings, but Erica doesn’t relate at all to the feminist movement. She considers the “whole feminist campaign … a mistake” particularly when it comes to the issue of sexual liberation. Danielle’s attitude towards sex has undergone a seismic shift since Leonard’s departure, and since she is no longer in a supposedly monogamous relationship, there appear to be no boundaries. She tells a horrified Erica :”I used to think, if they only want one thing, the poor bastards, why not give it to them.” Erica, however, is appalled by the notion of casual sex and thinks that women are doing themselves no favours.

Today, everywhere, Erica thinks, men must be laughing uproariously as they see us dismantling our own defenses from within–removing the elaborate barbed-wire entanglements of etiquette, tearing down the modest walls which for so long shielded our privacy, and filling in the moat of chastity with mud.

Brain is led astray by Wendy’s questionable allure, and so it would seem predictable that perhaps Erica will follow Danielle’s lead in her pursuit of feminism. Author Alison Lurie doesn’t take the predictable route, so instead we see another strange character emerge who becomes the counterbalance or seductive foil to Wendy–Zed, a former acquaintance of Erica’s who makes his way to Corinth and establishes the floundering Krishna bookshop in town. The bookshop is a popular hangout for some of the students–including Wendy. Zed appears to understand Wendy very well and with a totally different perception of the emotionally needy Wendy he argues that “Weakness can be a strategy just like any other.” Yet just what is Zed’s role in Wendy’s life.?Is he truly as disinterested in the Tates’ marriage as he professes to be? Highly entertaining, amusing and yet fraught with cruel realities about aging not being a defense against acting foolishly, The War Between the Tates presents a rich tableaux of characters set adrift in a shifting moral landscape. 

Review copy

14 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Lurie, Alison

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.

19 Comments

Filed under Amis, Kingsley, Fiction