May 2009

Barbara J. King

fiction

Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Admission is a nine-tenths wonder, a thick universe of a novel that brings alive not only its central character but also the tense annual ritual endured by thousands of high school seniors who believe entry to an elite college will define their futures.

Portia Nathan is an admission officer at Princeton University. Her life is marked by a comfortable routine shared with her English-professor partner, a man who deflects the energy he should expend on book-writing into department-chairing and cooking up Chicken Marbella dinners. He and Portia aren’t so much incompatible as just thickened into staleness.

More than her love relationship, then, it’s the academic calendar that animates Portia. Much of the year, she tours high schools in the northeast to pitch Princeton to overachievers like Matt Boyce, who blurts out his legacy heritage: “Yeah, we’re total Princeton. I was, like, wrapped in an orange blanket.”

During late winter and early spring, Portia reads. She nearly drowns in the land of hope and dreams built up in the hundreds and hundreds of applications that flood her desk. Portia feels great sympathy for these adolescent overachievers. She knows “that they were soft-centered, emotional beings wrapped in a terrified carapace, that even though they might appear rational and collected on paper, so focused that you wanted to marvel at their promise and maturity, they were lurching, turbulent muddles of conflict in their three-dimensional lives.”

As she reads folder after folder, the supplicants blur one with another. Now and then, Portia opens a folder and “the landscape suddenly snap[s] to clarity. Oh yes, now I understand. These impressive, compelling kids, enormously likable kids -- they’re the ones we don’t take. This amazing, extraordinary kid, that’s the kid we take.”

Jeremiah, a student at the experimental Quest School in New Hampshire, is one such kid. By way of complete indifference to instruction at his prior school, Jeremiah has become an autodidact super-reader whose brain spills over with ideas about Andy Warhol, civil rights history, and everything in between. He charms Portia.

Back at Princeton, Portia debriefs her boss. Jeremiah is, she says, “Very gifted, and a little bit odd.” The boss replies with a sigh, “One for the faculty, then.” At this, I snorted out loud. Korelitz has nailed it: we faculty do want our classes seeded with the massively gifted and the slightly odd. (Mild oddness can be vitally refreshing in the seminar classroom.)

Korelitz’s is another in a long line of academic novels, stretching from the classic (Kingsley Amis) to the contemporary (Michael Chabon, David Lodge, Philip Roth, Jane Smiley). She allows the occasional genre convention to pop up: the English Department is a nest of sexual betrayal! A class war goes on between moneyed and scholarshipped students!

Mostly, though, Admission glows with its own light. For one thing, it’s crammed with in-the-know details about the admission process. (Korelitz acted for a while as part-time reader of Princeton applications.) We learn not only about the baked goods that ritually flood admission offices and the over-the-top essays attached to them, but also about targeted requests for talent (Portia’s boss tells his troops “bring me saxophone players” as he tries to appease the music department) and the high emotion at final admit/no admit meetings. These kids, the special ones, truly do get under admission officers’ skin.  

Then there’s Portia herself. Her name puts us in mind of Shakespeare’s Portia, the Merchant of Venice Portia who speaks famously of mercy. And we wish Korelitz’s Portia would grant herself some of that quality. She suffers with a secret, a secret enfolded in a sorrow; it’s the kind of half-buried truth that Portia shoves willfully out of her consciousness, but that invests every bodily cell with its weight. She can’t bring herself to think about it, much less confide in anyone.

And here’s where the book’s title plays in our head. During a romantic tryst, Portia’s lover muses aloud, “Admission? Aren’t there two sides to the word?... It’s what we let in, but it’s also what we let out.” But Portia can’t let it out. How much she struggles emotionally, with her secret, with herself, with her lovers, with her friends, with her mother!

I won’t reveal Portia’s secret here. Instead, I’ll tell you about the quality of Korelitz’s writing. See how exquisitely she offers, in just two sentences, a blast of insight into who Portia is:   

“[Her mother] Susannah stepped up close to her and, with sufficient warning, leaned forward to embrace. Portia embraced, in return, in her usual way: body moving forward, spirit pulling back.”

Yet, as I have noted, I resisted Portia’s actions at the book’s close. They rang not just disturbing but false to me. And surely this feeling is double-edged, at once a reader’s conceit (could I possibly know Portia’s heart and mind, after a weekend’s acquaintance, better than her creator?) and a frank admission of admiration (how very real Portia became for me!).

At the end of the day, it’s no small joy to be nine-tenths transported by a novel. At the end of the academic year, I’ll be exploring Korelitz’s earlier novels.

Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Grand Central Publishing
ISBN: 0446540706
464 Pages

--Happily ensconced at the College of William and Mary, Barbara J. King welcomes email: bjking09@gmail.com