Reviewed by Harriet
I’d never heard of Jean Hanff Korelitz when her 2014 novel, You Should Have Known, landed unsolicited in my mailbox. I read it with huge admiration and enjoyment, and gave it a very positive review in the very first edition of Shiny [here].
Now it’s 2017, and her latest novel, The Devil and Webster, appeared in the same way a few weeks ago. I was excited to see where she had gone from the previous book, which was best described as a psychological thriller. I was expecting great writing, wit, perceptiveness and intelligence, and I certainly got all those. What I wasn’t expecting was a campus novel of a most timely and topical kind.
Webster College is a successful university in New Hampshire, almost but not quite in the Ivy League. Politically it has an interesting history. Founded originally to educate [ie brainwash] Native American students into a life of Christian conformity, it has managed to shake off its excessively conservative roots and become a lively, liberal, open-minded institution:
[an] intellectual college campus where you are free to learn and nap and make things and have sex and get high and change your fucking gender even, and clean water comes out of the tap and you wave your school ID under a scanner to help yourself to smorgasbords of food (meat! meat alternative! vegan! lactose-sensitive! nut-free! gluten-free!) and all we expect of you is that you pass your classes and don’t hurt anyone else.
One indication of this new openness is the recent appointment of a new president in the form of Naomi Roth, a noted feminist scholar who was herself an activist in her youth. Although she can never quite shake off the idea that this role is not really her, she does her best to take care of the young people in her care, keeping her doors always open in case anyone wants to see her for any reason. Initially, she looks benevolently at the small collection of makeshift tents that has sprung up round the central area known as The Stump. Yes, the students are protesting, but Naomi feels sure some rational discussions will sort it all out amicably.
Unfortunately, she couldn’t be more wrong. The reason for the protest is relatively simple. Dr Gall, a popular African American professor, has been denied tenure, and the students believe that this is on the grounds of his race. Obviously (though not to them) this is not true: in an academic climate where publications are essential, the only piece of work he has ever published has turned out to be plagiarised. This, together with the fact that his popularity rests on the fact that students barely need to show up at his classes as he automatically gives everyone an A-grade, makes it impossible for the college to give him tenure. But these facts cannot be made public for fear of legal action.
So the protest goes on, swelling in size and attracting radical students from other neighbouring universities. Naomi emails the organisers, inviting them to a meeting. They do not come. She tries again, still no response. The students are happy to talk to the media, and share their anger on social networks, but have no interest in an open discussion. To make matters worse, problems arise with the status of the protest’s organiser, a charismatic Palestinian student called Omar Khyal. Omar had gained admission to the college through his application essay, a brilliant and moving account of his escape from Gaza following the murder of his entire family. But it turns out that Omar has failed all his classes, apart from the one taught by Dr Gall, whose protegé he is. Naomi is hoping to meet with him to discuss his options – ideally, a term off to catch up with his failed work. But instead Omar gives an interview to the press, saying he has been expelled and all his belongings thrown away in bin bags, neither of which is true. He then disappears from sight, and nobody knows where he has gone. And things at Webster go from bad to worse.
So, this is satire of an extremely relevant kind, as anyone who is vaguely familiar with the current state of universities in the US, at least, will clearly recognise. Student protest is a highly topical issue, but also under fire is the college’s admissions policy, clearly skewed and biased in many deplorable ways despite what appear to be the best efforts of Francine Rigor, the admissions officer and Naomi’s best friend. But central to the story is Naomi herself, so kind and well-meaning but so powerless and vulnerable. It’s a scary picture of how a popular person can become a virtual pariah as a result of the spread of misinformation. This is indeed a psychological thriller in that is shows the deterioration of Naomi’s self-image and her gradual descent into near despair. It’s not giving too much away to say she comes through it in the end, but she’s not going to be unchanged. In fact both the two books of Korelitz’s that I’ve read so far have something in common, a strong and intelligent protagonist who means well but has a lot of lessons to learn and emerges sadder and wiser.
As you can tell, I really enjoyed this novel. It manages at times to be really funny but also frighteningly true to the issues it foregrounds. I whizzed through it.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Jean Hanff Korelitz, The Devil and Webster (Faber & Faber, 2017). 978-0571327980, 368pp., trade paperback.
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