The Devil and Webster by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Feminist scholar Naomi Roth is proud to be the first female president of Webster College, a university in New England ranked as highly as those in the Ivy League. She is proud of the culture of inclusiveness, creativity and diversity, although she is aware Webster could do better, which is why she wants to host a gathering of Native American alumni to celebrate the contribution of Native American students since its founding 250 years before. With her personal history of activism, she is also proud of the university’s encouragement of peaceful protest and the questioning of the status quo.
So she’s initially pleased when an encampment develops around one of the most treasured landmarks on the campus. As winter approaches, although concerned for students abandoning their comfortable dormitories to sleep in tents, Naomi defends their right to protest. But as the movement grows, attracting students from other institutions along with the press, she is confused and irritated. Unlike the protests of her youth, the students seem reluctant to bring her their grievances. When it emerges that the protest is rooted in a popular lecturer’s failure to achieve tenure, things turn ugly. The university cannot defend its charge of racism without breaking confidentiality; but, Professor Gall having committed plagiarism, there’s no way his contract can be renewed. Having elected an orphaned Palestinian refugee as their spokesperson, the students seem to have captured the moral ground.
I enjoyed this novel about truth, trust and the turbulence of social systems. Like my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, it’s concerned with adolescent development and midlife coming-of-age. As an insightful outsider comments (p315):
young people need to feel their specialness. And one way they feel it is to transmute any kind of discomfort into outright oppression.
Yet, in protesting against the liberal but limited institution, they seem to be protesting against their own privilege. With her own daughter amongst the protesters, and a lifelong mission to speak truth to power, Naomi perhaps overidentifies with the students and has to learn to accept that she herself is the power she’s always pushed against. But the denouement offers her the opportunity to set aside her personal loyalties and speak power to truth.
The story did seem to take a while to get going, with a fair amount of background detail about the history and culture of the university in the early chapters. While it didn’t seem so at the time, the information was necessary and I’m glad it didn’t put me off. I’m interested to check out how other readers experienced this as finding an interesting way of conveying essential information about the workings of an institution is one of the issues I’m grappling with in my current WIP.
Thanks to Faber and Faber for my review copy of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s sixth novel.
The Cut by Anthony Cartwright
It’s a brave writer who takes up the challenge of creating a fictional response to the shock many of us felt at the vote for Brexit, especially one funded by a Kickstarter campaign. So it is greatly to his credit, and that of his editor and publisher, Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press, that he’s produced a highly readable novella within a year of the result. His readers, largely thoughtful people dismayed at the divisions within our country, will have high expectations; how much this furthers our understanding of our current sociopolitical landscape likely to be subject to much debate.
While the distinctions, and unexpected commonalities, between the two main characters are well portrayed, to me they seemed little different to those between North and South, the provinces and the metropolis, the middle class and the barely-working working-class, the arty types and those with a more practical bent. That, of course, might be the point, that a metropolitan elite has ignored its detractors for too long.
As with Trump’s America, there’s an underlying Messiah narrative in the vote for something new (p100-102):
People are tired. Tired of clammed-up factory gates, but not even them any more, because look where they are working now, digging trenches to tat out the last of whatever metal was left. Tired of change, tired of the world passing by, tired of other people getting things that you and people like you have made for them …
To start again and new: the only cure for this tiredness. To leave our old selves behind and become someone new. And babies could do that, children, they were someone new without all the old tiredness.
I’d be interested in whether that explanation rings true for you.
Although I’ve had several of Peirene’s books for free in exchange for an honest review, I paid for my copy of The Cut through Kickstarter.