The Devil and Webster
From the New York Times bestselling author of You Should Have Known and Admission, a twisty new novel about a college president, a baffling student protest, and some of the most hot-button issues on today’s college campuses.
Naomi Roth is the first female president of Webster College, a once conservative school now known for producing fired-up, progressive graduates. So Naomi isn’t surprised or unduly alarmed when Webster students begin the fall semester with an outdoor encampment around “The Stump”-a traditional campus gathering place for generations of student activists-to protest a popular professor’s denial of tenure. A former student radical herself, Naomi admires the protestors’ passion, especially when her own daughter, Hannah, joins their ranks.
Then Omar Khayal, a charismatic Palestinian student with a devastating personal history, emerges as the group’s leader, and the demonstration begins to consume Naomi’s life, destabilizing Webster College from the inside out. As the crisis slips beyond her control, Naomi must take increasingly desperate measures to protect her friends, colleagues, and family from an unknowable adversary.
Touching on some of the most topical and controversial concerns at the heart of our society, this riveting novel examines the fragility that lies behind who we think we are-and what we think we believe.
A few days ago, one of my students asked me what I was reading, so I told her about Jean Hanff Korelitz's new novel, called The Devil and Webster. My student's eyes got wider as I finished lightly summarizing the plot, and she said, with some concern about Korelitz: "I hope she's ready for all the angry tweets and emails."
Yeah, I think she probably is.
Korelitz's new novel is a smart, semi-satire about the reign of identity politics on college campuses today. That, in itself, is a tricky subject for a white novelist to tackle, unless she or he is a far-right conservative, which Korelitz is not.
But then Korelitz makes matters even more complicated. Her heroine is a Jewish feminist college president named Naomi Roth. Facing off against her are an African-American professor and a Palestinian undergraduate; these two men turn out to be the most "duplicitous" characters in the story.
You see why my student's eyes widened at what sounds like a deliberately provocative set-up.
Recently, the novelist Lionel Shriver stirred up a lot of criticism on the left by publicly denouncing what she called "tippy-toe" fiction constrained by identity politics. Korelitz is not tippy-toeing here; rather, she's asserting the novelist's right to imagine a story that's messier than a homily, and characters who are more nuanced than mere emblems.
Korelitz's setting is the fictional Webster College. Webster is an elite liberal arts college in the mode of Amherst or Williams. It used to be a bastion of old boys and old money, but it remade itself in the 1970s; now Webster boasts a much more diverse student body, along with a dining hall that serves culturally sensitive cuisine of all nations and a college portfolio divested of all trace elements of nuclear energy and diamond dust. And Webster has its first female president in Naomi Roth.
Naomi is our moral center and she couldn't be more likable: a single mother, astute and beleaguered, wild haired and a tad frumpy. She still harbors a lingering case of "imposter syndrome" under her proper Eileen Fisher outfits.
When the story begins, Naomi has become aware of a growing band of students— her own daughter among them — camped out around "the Stump," the epicenter of campus and the traditional gathering place for protests.
But this group of protesters is maddeningly close-mouthed, refusing to meet with the administration to discuss their grievances. At one point, Naomi talks with her friend Francine, the director of admissions at Webster, and Francine shrewdly characterizes this new mutation of campus protest in the Internet age. Naomi says:
"My door's been open for months. ... What kind of protest declines dialogue with its opponent?"
"A modern one," Francine said dryly. "These kids are not like we were. ... Interaction across the battle lines isn't what they're after. ... They want to represent something to their peers more than they want to gain respect from their opponents."
"Or accomplish anything," Naomi said, rolling her eyes.
"Oh, they're accomplishing plenty. They're compiling influence. ... "
"Gaining 'likes.' Getting 'retweeted.' "
"That's part of it. No point denying it."
One of the causes of the protest turns out to be the fact that a popular anthropology professor has been denied tenure; because he's African-American, students accuse Webster of institutional racism.
Naomi and the tenure committee have to remain silent for legal reasons, even though they know that the professor is guilty of something more damning than suspiciously high "Rate My Professor" scores complimenting his astronomically inflated grades. When a young student, a Palestinian refugee named Omar Khayal, emerges as the professor's most eloquent defender, the situation becomes so heated that Naomi has real cause to fear that she'll be ousted from the presidency of Webster.
The Devil and Webster is wittily on target about, among other things, social class, privilege, silencing and old-school feminist ambivalence about power. It also takes on Korelitz's home subject, the insanity of the college admissions process. But its central dilemma — whether we can form a cosmopolitan community where we affirm our individual identities, yet remain connected to one another — is, in realistic fashion, no closer to being resolved by the time we get to the end of the book.
“The Devil and Webster,” Jean Hanff Korelitz’s sharp and insightful account of the current explosion of student discontent, ought to set off a golden age for the campus novel.
At an elite New England liberal arts college, students have occupied the quad, pitching tents and raising banners in protest of the administration. The source of their anger is the college’s decision to deny tenure to a popular African-American anthropology professor. Because the tenure process is confidential, the college’s president cannot discuss the reasons for the decision, and in the absence of an explanation, the protest movement has leapt to a damning accusation of racism. When a slur is discovered painted on a student building, the crisis comes to national attention. Supporters on the left call the president “a despotic figurehead,” while critics on the right suspect radical students of having manufactured the vandalism and place the blame for the unrest on the college’s “famously permissive mores.”
Given the contentious campus dramatics that now make the papers on a regular basis—the most recent and egregious being the violent attack at Middlebury College on the scholar Charles Murray and the professor who hosted him—everything in the above scenario would make a perfectly plausible news story. But, instead, it is the plot of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s “The Devil and Webster” (Grand Central Publishing, 359 pages, $27), a sharp and insightful novel exploring the current explosion of student discontent.
The college the book imagines is called Webster and its president is Naomi Roth, who first appeared in Ms. Korelitz’s 1999 novel “The Sabbathday River,” an updating of “The Scarlet Letter” focused on a young woman who is tried for infanticide. Roth is a dedicated second-wave feminist who has guided Webster’s transformation from a provincial institution to a celebrated bastion of progressive values. Ms. Korelitz has a keen appreciation for the irony that this onetime radical is now, for the protest group calling itself Webster Dissent—which includes the college president’s own daughter—little more than a symbol of systemic injustice. To students “within the magical prism that was time on a college campus,” Roth’s own history has no meaning—“only the great and wondrous *now *ever seemed real.”
Roth’s foil is the de facto leader of Webster Dissent, a Palestinian scholarship student named Omar Khayal, whose stories of childhood oppression and dangers faced have made him a kind of talisman to the impressionable and highly privileged student body. Roth tries to take a laissez-faire attitude to the demonstrations, but when she reaches out to Omar she’s rebuffed. Again, Ms. Korelitz hits on a trenchant observation about the nature of contemporary activism: Its object is not resolution but renown. “Interaction across the battle lines isn’t what they’re after,” a colleague tells the president. “They want to build their own constituencies. They want to represent something to their peers more than they want to gain respect from their opponents.”
What that something might be is never totally clear. Roth feels a parental affection for the undergraduates—just teenagers, she reminds everyone—who have become “divinely outraged” on behalf of a professor most have never met. Their vehemence is matched by the vagueness of their complaints, and Roth finds it hard to disagree with a friend’s assessment that, at the heart of it all, “young people need to feel their specialness. And one way they feel it is to transmute any kind of discomfort into outright oppression.”
As the stalemate deepens, Roth must handle the increasingly hostile protesters, the more reactionary members of the college’s board who want her to forcibly clear the quad and the media pundits eager to poach the crisis for succulent talking points. Ms. Korelitz breaks the tension with a clever plot twist that has the satisfying effect of making everyone, on both sides, look foolish and deluded.
“The Devil and Webster” is very much Naomi Roth’s book. In the midst of the furor, she undergoes a midlife coming-of-age, completing the switch from a person committed to challenging the rules to one whose duty is to enforce them. Hers is a memorable story, but it is just one from a setting teeming with dramatic potential today. The enclosed space of colleges has long offered writers an ideal laboratory for unloosing social conflict. Right now, the elements involved are especially unstable. This ought to be the start of a golden age for the campus novel.
Appeared in the Mar. 18, 2017, print edition.
By SAM SACKS
Updated March 17, 2017 5:51 p.m. ET
Korelitz (Admission) raids the current news climate for this hot-topic read about diversity, protest, and “liberal idiocy” on the campus of progressive Webster College, headed by its first female and Jewish president, Naomi Roth, a feminist academic with her own radical past. Roth’s pride in Webster’s evolution from white male homogeneity to carefully culled inclusion is tested by the denial of tenure to popular black professor Nicholas Gall, which spawns a massive student movement to protect him led by Omar Khayal, a charismatic Palestinian student. Though Roth prides herself on speaking “truth to power,” when she is the “establishment” her words fall on deaf ears. They fail to impress even her own daughter, Hannah, a member of the protest movement; best friend, Francine, the college’s admissions dean going through her own academic crisis; and the restive college board. There’s much to ponder in this dense political and social debate, and it’s as overwhelming to Naomi as it is to readers, who, though pitying her no-win situation, can see the hypocrisy that blinds her. Ultimately, it isn’t the political twist that’s so riveting in Korelitz’s morality tale, but the apolitical, ageless struggle of a mother letting go of her daughter, a fact “so very ordinary, but... everything, too.”
What happens when a student protester at an elite New England college grows up and becomes its first female president? Jean Hanff Korelitz answers that question and more in this compulsively readable, uncanny, and irreverent novel that focuses on an American college campus to expose our current national psyche. Korelitz — author of Admission, a college-admissions novel that was made into the 2013 film starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, and You Should Have Known, about a New York shrink who learns her husband of two decades is a sociopath — is an expert on the art of deception, a talent she puts to excellent use in her latest book. In The Devil and Webster, she churns the college melting pot to explosion by adding, among other things, a polarizing Palestinian campus leader and a controversial tenure case complicated by a secret.