Jun 07, 09
Read in June, 2009
The overwhelming sense I had when reading this book, a discourse on the trials of a woman who serves as gatekeeper at Princeton through her work in the admissions office, is that it had the quality of a televeision series - a lot of panoramic views without any real depth.
This work traces the emotional turmoil that Portia, reader of applications faces, inside and outside of her office as she deals with her various emotional distractions. While it is a smartly written novel in that the language is tight and the words well chosen (hence a somewhat begrudging three star score) it simply did not work as a proper novel.
For one thing, Korelitz's balance of prose and dialogue is horribly off. Portia's somewhat snooty and pretentious sounding mind (ironically as she ranks on the snooty and the pretensious, thereby aligning herself with them in the worst way) goes on for pages - then we are treated to far too many word for word exchanges of what I am sure are actual conversations Korelitz had while working at Princeton, but none of which are actually interesting to a reader. It seems the lines between memoir, novel and essay for the New Yorker constantly blurred in her mind.
The structure of a novel, formulaic though it will sound, has been instituted for a reason. For me to reach page 238 and still not know what the actual plot of the novel is indicates a problem. A premise is one thing (ie, inside the world of those who decide who will be let in, which is interesting but doesn't have quite the voyeuristic quality that Korelit wishes it did - give me pageant moms or abused nannies over SAT scores versus lacrosse teams any day) but if it;s all you have, then, no, I'm sorry, you are not being the new Jane Austen with your biting accuracy on commentary - youa re actually just boring me.
IN addition to build up to a conflict/climax that took way too long to happen, Korelitz's characters, as stated previously, lack depth in a way that is striking for a work that takes on such emotional issues and pretty prose. Portia meets someone within the first twnety pages and has a wild one night stand with him that doesn't seem to be in any way grounded in reality (ie, what exactly is drawing these two people together? Nothing, ostensibly). We then find out, for the first time, that she has been living with someone for sixteen years. Oh! That would have been nice to know to develop some sort of, dare I say, conflict? But no. Which is fine because Portia doesn't seem to be all that conflicted, or affected by this betrayal at all. She kicks said affair to the curb rather neatly and just resumes her regularly scheduled program wtih then velatedly introduced Mark, who, similar to John, is extremely flat and falls into personality development that is just convenient for the author. John needs to be that nice and funny disarming guy, and so he is. Mark needs to be, well, nothing much, and so he is.
IN what I hope was supposed to be a super predictable turn of events, Mark himself has been seeing someone, someone he actually invites for dinner (????) and then chides Portia for not being nicer to when said mistress (though this is not yet revealed to the rather emotionally stupid Portia) is quite nasty to Portia. Well we all move on rather neatly from this as well until Mark confesses, abruptly, in a car ride, that mistress exists, is having his baby, gets out of the car, and voila, sixteen year relationship ends in an exchange that I found to be wholly unrealistic and therefore devoid of any emotion as far as the reader is concerned (as prompted by the unemotional characters who have been, what, in a COMA the last decade and a half??).
Well isn't this convenient! So now she is free to resume relatinship with what's his name, who Portia hasn't so much has mentioned for approx 100 pages or so, and sure enough he reappears and their relationship (so called) picks up right where it left off, just as baffling and just as undeveloped.
Does anyone see a conflict here? Well, in truth, JOhn is a college guidance guy so I see how that will be one, but those details really could have been utilized sooner in the story - ie, skip a lot of the admissions propaganda that means nothing to anyone except Korelitz who seems a frustrated blogger more so than a novelist, and give us an actual story! Don't crowd your novel with characters who seem rather irrelevant and dialogue that sounds like a sitcom rather than real people having real conversation.
The application reading process, I admit, is interesting to read about (to a degree) and it is reassuring to think that the process is gone about as fairly as it is, but it needed to be a background and not a driving force. IN truth Korelitz either needed to write a memoir or an article and skip the steamy love scenes she plunks in for good measure among characters who are so plain its sad. This work reminded me of the Bronte Project, another dishrag heroine who lets life happen to her and reads too much and leaves the reader completely cold.
The so called twist at the end was not only totally unrealistic but also extremely predictable. It was another attempt to transcend this piece yet all it did was further the trite quality. The narrative, long winded and existent to serve the authors transparent purposes, went on and on, and instead of creating likeable characters they merely felt like puppets til the end.
ETA - I will say, though, that the excerpts of student essays are hillarious - I would have liked to have seen some that actually were as smart sounding as one would think a Princeton applicant would be, but the bulk of them were laugh out loud funny and, to an English teacher, wildly appreciated.