Friday, May 8, 2009

Admitting covetousness

Jean Hanff Korelitz's new novel about the college admissions process is by turns absorbing, repellent and sobering

Portia Nathan has an enviable life. Raised in relative comfort, educated at Dartmouth, she resides in affluent domesticity with Mark, her charming and decent companion of sixteen years, soon to be chair of the English Department at Princeton. She also has an enviable job as long-time admissions officer at the university, where she reviews a steady stream of applications from spectacular students, a handful of whom she has the
great pleasure of admitting. While this work sometimes entails difficult choices, and inevitably leads to occasionally awkward encounters, the creature comforts of the job, combined with a sense that she has the power to actually do some good in the world by conferring secular grace on a notably deserving applicant, make it one many of us would feel lucky to have.

But Portia Nathan is a mess. Yes, she was raised in relevant comfort, but it was by a feminist hippie-by-way-of Great Neck mother who regretted her heterosexuality and engineered an anonymous encounter to nab the sperm necessary to conceive Portia. Yes, she has a good life with Mark, whom she has never married (he has a daughter from a previous marriage), but it's a relationship that's making her restless -- and one in any case in which he drops a bombshell that upends her cozy existence. And yes, she's a competent and valued colleague, but a long-held secret about her own undergraduate days ultimately leads her down a path toward compromising cherished personal as well as professional principles. Admission is the story of these converging personal narratives, and the way the 38 year-old Portia succe
eds -- and fails -- to deal with them in an appropriate way.

But that's only half the story, and arguably the less compelling half. Admission is also an acutely observed account of an archetypal admissions cycle, from recruiting in the fall through the shredding of reject files in the spring. Actually, to a great extent the novel consists of a series of conversational set pieces that allows Jean Hanff Korelitz, who worked in the Princeton admissions office in 2006 and 2007, to explain the finer points of the system as it's currently run: the kinds of things that matter, the kinds of things that don't, and the changes that have take place in the twenty years since the time when an intelligent, well-rounded, but otherwise unremarkable adolescent like Portia Nathan could be admitted to the Ivy League. Along the way, we meet a series of high school seniors -- some deeply appealing, some less so, some whose fate seems relatively obvious and some whose outcome remains unclear until the end -- who endure an ever-more grueling marathon destined to end in disappointment and frustration if the light at the end of the tunnel is Harvard crimson, Yale blue, or Princeton orange.

What's a little weird and unsettling about the novel is the way its protagonist insistently affirms the integrity of the admissions process every step of the way, and in fact is reasonably credible in doing so, in part because there's sometimes brutal honesty about a system that exists first and foremost for the institution, not the students, and in which it is axiomatic that being a competent, deserving applicant is utterly inadequate in itself as a criterion for admission. And yet for at least some readers (certainly this one) the ending of the book casts this message in doubt. This may, or may not, be Korelitz's intention. That I'm not sure -- Portia makes a decision that may strike some as selfless and others as corrupt -- suggests an attempt to craft an element of ambiguity that is the hallmark of ambitious works of art. There is, in any case, little doubt about
the author's ambition or sophistication.

I do have some questions about her judgment, however. To a great extent, these reservations are aesthetic -- this is a book that goes on for far too long, with far too much exposition. Portia Nathan is an engaging character, but I sometimes felt her creator was a bit too infatuated with her, dwelling on the features of her psychic landscape in ways that finally engender impatience if not exasperation (I choose that last verb advisedly). As a matter of craft, I would have liked a faster narrative pace.

But what really bothers me about the book -- and here I must say that I'm at least as much usefully provoked as I am irritated -- are the underlying premises of the life Portia Nathan (I've just corrected the apt typo of "Portia Nation") has led. It's a way of life, whose outlines became clear in her mother's generation, in which self-fulfillment, justified by a va
gue notion of merit, is paramount. At the heart of this vision is the concept of choice, a key term whose domain stretches from retail consumption to college admission to reproductive rights. Choice, along with a fair chance of being chosen, is viewed as our national birthright. Our collective commitment to this idea, even in many of the most conservative provinces of our society, is very deeply entrenched. So entrenched, in fact, that we are oppressed by the sense of possibility perpetually dangling before us and have a difficult time, as Portia does, in groping toward a sense of responsibility and maturity for lives other than our own.

We are, in short, enthralled (another word which, like "admission," cuts more than one way) by our own potential -- the terror that we'll fail to realize it, or that we don't really have it in the first place. Korelitz captures this exquisite pain in a mental monologue in which Portia considers the way even those anointed with Ivy are afflicted:
Inside every one of her fellow students, she understood now, was a person who didn't live up to his or her own expectations, a person too fat, too slow, whose hair wouldn't hold a curl, who had no gift for languages, who lacked a gene for math. They were convinced they were not all they were cracked up to be ... Up and down the corridors of the dormitories, behind each closed door, and whether the person was davening over organic chemistry or drinking himself into a stupor, the Dartmouth she'd attended was populated by young people who were terrified of exposure . . .
Twenty years later, it was worse.

The feverish anxiety that Korelitz describes is in many ways a generational condition. But it should be said that it was not invented in the second half of the twentieth century. Touring the United States in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville was struck by a powerful contradiction when he compared the Americans he met with those he knew back in Europe. The latter, he noted, were "extremely ignorant and poor; they take no part in the business of the country and are frequently oppressed, yet their countenances are generally placid and their spirits light." In the United States, by contrast, de Tocqueville "saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest circumstances the world affords," and yet it seemed "as if a cloud habitually hung on their brow, and I thought them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures." The reason for this, he believed, is that Americans are "forever brooding over advantages they do not possess. It is strange to see with what feverish ardor the American pursue their own welfare, and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path that may lead to it."

What a novel like Admission documents is the democratization of this desire, which has expanded far beyond white men to encompass many more people in American society. But this has been a mixed blessing. Again, de Tocqueville is stunningly apt: "When all the privileges of birth and fortune are abolished, when all professions [make that universities] are accessible to all, and a man's [or woman's] own energies may place him at the top of any one of them, an easy and unbounded career seems open to his ambition and he will readily persuade himself that he is born to no uncommon destiny. But this is an erroneous notion, which is corrected by daily experience. The same equality that allows every citizen to conceive those lofty hopes renders all the citizens less able to realize them." Go right ahead: join 10,000 other people trying to say something stunningly original in 500 words or less.

But what a novel like Admission also documents is a perception -- not empirically verifiable yet, but difficult to deny -- that this democratization of desire is accompanied by an increasingly global applicant pool and an ever-narrowing gateway to the Good Life, broadly construed. A major part of the novel concerns a wretchedly educated public school student who discovers the life of the mind at a new alternative high school and realizes that he desperately wants to attend Princeton. As everyone knows, anyone can go to Princeton (which of course is not quite the same thing as saying that everyone has an equal chance). But as everyone also knows, having gone to Princeton is a priceless asset in literal as well as figurative terms (which is not quite a guarantee that you'll be, or remain, rich, though there are no better bets out there). We all understand there are a great many places at which one can receive a wonderful undergraduate education. But there are not many places at all where you can get the internship at the Congresswoman's office, travel to China with a ping pong team over spring break, or get the letter of recommendation from the professor who went to grad school with the chair of that graduate program to which you're applying.

It's surely possible to have such experiences without going to Princeton, and one of the important developments in recent college admissions cycles is the growing sense of competition for students by schools once not considered in its league. But an avowed elitism is finally the raison d'etre for these schools, whatever the membership of the particular club. The names and faces of students may change (and may change color), but that elitism has never been in question.

This unofficial aristocracy was acceptable in the age of Tocqueville (or, for that matter, the age of King), when a sense of rising expectations in American society as a whole bred a sense of optimism and hope that access to that aristocracy was actually, or imminently, attainable. But we live in an age when our economic horizons are narrowing, and in fact have been for some time. This has served to ratchet up the tension, and for parents and children to strain ever harder to reach a brass ring that still seems tantalizingly within our grasp. In a way, we're unfortunate that our recent economic downturn hasn't been worse; then maybe we'd surrender our illusions more easily.

For the time being, though, a great many of us will hold on, will hold out. Admission will serve as a reminder how difficult, and unpleasant that can be to do -- or merely witness (I speak, with necessary irony, as a scholarship boy). Maybe not more unpleasant than a society in which we all know our place. But if nothing else, this novel shows us that not knowing can be pretty damn rough. And how a little humility, something that does not come naturally to strivers in a presumably meritocratic order, might go a long way.