Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Academics Arn't Enough [A Book Review]

A novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Published in April 2009

With the slightest amount of trepidation (ever so little!) it's placed in the mail. It falls into the lap of an faceless judge. Their decision is life-altering. College admissions: An experience that is immediately relatable even years later, and a ubiquitous plague in adolescent culture. Jean Hanff Korelitz newest novel, Admission, is not only a behind-the-scenes look into the cloaked world of college admissions, but also a thorough examination of what Admission is. However, though Academically literary, the novel isn't without -- a rather odd set of-- problems.

Portia Nathan, an admissions officer for Princeton, is thoroughly invested in her work. She travels to high schools, has a strong commitment to the applicants whose files she reads, and she believes what she does it worth while. Her life, as it is, is comfortable. Her past, however, is not. Portia's life gets turned upside down when a secret from her past meets her face to face, and she's forced to make life-altering decisions that don't involve faceless knowledge-hungry teenagers.

The themes of Korelitz novel are almost immediately identifiable. Within the first one-hundred pages it becomes quite clear what Korelitz is working toward, and this is in itself problematic. The novel, and its themes are fairly straightforward and the intention seems to be that the reader is to be pressed to read further in the hopes of uncovering Portia's secret, and indeed; finding out if the charming teenagers in the beginning of the novel do indeed get into Princeton. The problem isn't with the latter-- in fact a majority of the emotional investment in the novel is bound to be for the young Jeremy Balakian, a character that is at once likable and attention stealing.

The problem-- ironically enough-- is with Portia herself. By revealing the novel's themes too quickly, the reader becomes too aware of the game Korelitz is playing. The reader has a firm understanding of the Portia's situation without any clear details and mere circumspection. This fact that Korelitz does not reveal the truth until late in the novel is unproblematic, what's problematic is Portia's thought process. She is exhaustive, and occasionally repetitive. She will leave you screaming at the book to hurry up *beep* up. She is the proof chauvinistic men everywhere are looking for that proves "women think too much." The problem of course, is that all of this is totally in character with the protagonist. The clearest solution would have been to keep her themes more aloof, because if the intent weren't so transparent-- built to lead to the inevitable-- there would likely be some large amount of patience for Portia's rambling thought process. As it is Portia feels stubbornly in the way of the reader trying to uncover her secret-- which isn't in itself that pressing anyway.

Less damaging, but no less infuriating is the novel's quasi-elitist position. A non-Ivy League reader can only hear how special everyone who applies to Princeton is before there is a sense of resentment-- yes, everyone who applies to Princeton is a shinning star, but what of the thousands of people who weren't the "Most likely to succeeds"? The novel makes no mention of the people who would have had no chance of getting in, and though a bit of silly immaturity, it breeds resentment. The "common man" will feel blown out of the water reading this novel in which the excellent are mediocre. It's demoralizing-- occasionally insulting, and perhaps appropriately-- tough to admit personal inadequacy. Will everyone feel this way reading it? Certainly not, but the reality is it's there and makes for a difficult stretch of reading.

Admission employs all of the tools that typically launch novels to literary success, but it's a frustrating read that evokes annoyance more than anything else. While Jeremy Balakian is a wonderful-- you sincerely hope he will get into Princeton-- his character is more minor than he perhaps should be. Korelitz novel simply doesn't quite make the cut. Maybe wait list.


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