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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.
|Publisher:||Grand Central Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)|
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The Devil and Webster
By Jean Hanff Korelitz
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2017 Jean Hanff Korelitz
All rights reserved.
Naomi Roth's Defining Moment
What happened at Webster that year was terrible, but even so, it wasn't the first potentially terrible scenario Naomi Roth had faced, either as Webster's president or, indeed, in her prior roles at the college: professor, dean of women's affairs, and reluctant member of the search committee for the very job she'd end up occupying herself.
That earlier skirmish (later she would think of it as a baptism of sorts) had been the Radclyffe Hall mess a decade earlier, more or less concurrent with the announcement that Logan Coulson, Webster's sixteenth president, would retire in one year. Radclyffe Hall had brought the college, and Naomi as its situational spokesperson, the kind of attention that generated snark on Weekend Update and the gleeful nastiness of right-wingers everywhere. It brought figures from Naomi's life in all its phases — her New York childhood, college in upstate New York, the years in northern New Hampshire (first as a VISTA volunteer then as a leftover from some nonexistent social revolution), and later graduate school and academia — poking back into her life, with emails to her Webster address, messages on her office phone, and a deeply unwelcome letter from her ex-husband, enclosing three glossy photos of himself with wife number 2 and kids (which went straight into the garbage, but which having been seen could not, annoyingly, be unseen). There had even been one painstakingly written note on pink paper from a third cousin in Florida (the envelope containing a folded AP clipping from a Fort Lauderdale weekly that made Naomi look very old and grievously fat) admonishing her to do something about her hair, because she had been "such a pretty girl when you were little." The whole crazy — and crazily overblown — thing, Naomi now understood, had utterly changed her life.
The incident began, as these things so often did, with a whimper, not a bang, and that whimper took the form of a Webster room selection in accordance with a sophomore's designated lottery number, an enviably low number, as it happened. The sophomore's choice of dwelling had been a single room on the third floor of Radclyffe Hall. Radclyffe was one of a number of large, once private homes that had been converted to themed residential housing when the college embarked on a wave of new construction — Science Complex, Language Cluster, Arts Neighborhood — in the '80s. They ran in an opulent a line down Fairweather Road, which was just beyond the athletic center and bordered its fields. First off the corner was the Co-Op House (genially socialist, with rotating food preparation, but not outright hippie), then the French House, then the German House, then the Sojourner Truth House, then the Gandhi Collective Center (those were the hippies), then the First Nations Center (Native American students in the '80s had preferred this Canadian moniker, for some reason, and it had stuck), and then Radclyffe Hall, after which fraternities and sororities stretched to the end of the block. Radclyffe Hall, a squarish three-story structure, vaguely Queen Anne in style, with shared public rooms on the ground floor, was named not for the lesbian novelist but for a gruff 1908 graduate named James Radclyffe, who'd made his pile the old-fashioned way — by inheriting it — and would have been horrified, horrified, at what his namesake building had become. The "Hall" was added eventually, as must have seemed inevitable, and after a few years people just assumed that the name was a kind of pun about The Well of Loneliness, even though not all of the women who lived there were gay. Gay wasn't the point; female was the point. "A living environment for women within the Webster community," ran the description in the Webster Housing Handbook. Translation: Women Only.
The sophomore, whose name was Nell Jones-Givens, would later claim to have been surprised by the impact of her room selection, which bubbled and brewed for a few weeks before, just prior to midterms, two women who lived at Radclyffe came to the dean of students' office with an official objection. The dean, a perpetually irritated man named Bob Stacek, who had been at Webster since his own undergraduate days, had swiftly dropkicked the matter to Naomi, whether as chair of the Women's Studies Department or as dean of women's affairs, she was never sure. Not that it mattered. Bob's distaste for the situation was plain; indeed, he acted as if he'd been personally asked to dig bloody tampons out of the Radclyffe Hall toilets. And Naomi, who until that time had been so underinvolved in matters of college administration that she routinely spent her time in meetings surreptitiously making to-do lists, understood that this particular bell was tolling for her. And she had to admit: No one on campus was remotely as well prepared to address the issue at hand than herself, tenured professor of women's studies and gender studies, and author of the respectably read (for academic nonfiction) Divide and Conquer: Femaleness and Feminism in the Women's Movement's Second Wave.
Nell Jones-Givens, the sophomore with the enviably low housing lottery number, had by her own account (published eventually on Slate and later wildly misquoted by Laura Ingraham and other right-wingers) been grappling with gender dysmorphia since early childhood, and by the age of twelve had accepted that she was essentially a male person misplaced in a female body. Her efforts to delay menses and mash her breasts flat against her rib cage, her unsuccessful attempt to run with the men's cross-country team at her suburban Illinois high school, and her attainment of peace within her family on these issues had also been the subjects of her admissions essay to Webster. Hence, though Admissions did not routinely share such material with the administration, the college could not claim to have been ignorant of the implications of Nell's housing selection.
Over the summer that followed her freshman year, Nell had legally changed her name to Neil in her home state of Illinois. Official gender designation was a bit thornier, which only added to the mayhem once the whole mess began to roil. She was a woman, genetically. She was a man, spiritually. She had been admitted to Webster as a woman. She was a man by temperament, by choice, by fate, by all that was holy — except, to those few poor evangelical Christians on campus, who asserted that whatever else she was, she was far from holy. She was a member of a gender designation that had expanded beyond patriarchal structures to assume a spectrum of identities, of which Neil's was simply one among so many. She was a knowing invader of the only female-designated safe space on campus, and a debaser of femaleness itself, due to the incomprehensible fact that she had been given the gift of being female and had chosen to decline it. She was ... well, at the end of the day, what she was mattered far less than what she was not. She was not a woman, by her own account. She was also not remotely ready for what was about to happen to her. Webster was not ready. And Naomi certainly was not ready.
It had been a slowly unfolding, lovely, and uneventful fall. That hadn't helped.
All began well enough at Radclyffe Hall. Neil had made a friendly announcement about his new name at the first sharing circle meeting in September, and generally assumed his uncomplaining share of the cooking, cleaning, and upkeep of the house. He prepared exotic teas for his housemates from a large personal collection and frequently loaded the dishwasher, even when it was not technically his turn to do so. He tutored two of the women on his floor who were struggling in Japanese (Neil was fluent, having spent a gap year in Kyoto) and maintained the Radclyffe Hall Facebook page, soon to be inundated with vitriol from the world at large. But slowly, the situation began to fester.
There were the hormones: little ampules of injectable testosterone in the first floor bathroom (for one junior girl in the house, the needles themselves were triggering traumatic flashbacks to a childhood bout with leukemia, but that was a separate issue). There was the clomping presence of an increasingly hairy, increasingly muscular person in the hallways and on the stairs, "taking up space," said the needlephobe's roommate, in that indefinable yet obvious way men did everywhere in the world. And finally, there was the boyfriend, a slim-hipped fiddler who claimed to have dropped out of Webster because it wasn't academically rigorous enough, and who now worked at one of the coffee bars downtown. And this, Naomi would come to understand, was the most incendiary of all the resentments engendered by Neil Jones-Givens. Had Neil actually become a man only to sleep with other men? In which case ... what was the point of that? If he'd wanted to sleep with men, why not just remain a woman?
Calm, Naomi told the delegation from Radclyffe, on their first visit to her very small office in Crump-Eustis Hall, where the English and Comp. Lit. departments were based. Calm, calm. Let's remember that we're talking about young people — people learning who they are. Let's remember that we're talking about a college housing assignment, and working out how to live with people who don't fall in with every one of our beliefs, predilections, innate prejudices, or tastes in junk food was one of the little challenges of life and a test of civilization in general. The women — four of them — did not nod. They did not smile. The needlephobe, who headed the campus LGBTQ political action committee, was sitting in one of Naomi's visitors' seats, a Hitchcock-style wooden chair, not very comfortable, with the college crest stenciled on the back in bright blue and green. She had her hands wedged beneath her thighs, and she leaned forward, mashing them down against the wood, as if she was scared they might escape her control and do something terrible.
"No," said her roommate, a basketball player from Florida. "No, we won't be 'calm.' Would you tell us to be calm if we were being threatened with rape?"
"Absolutely not," said Naomi, straining for composure. "But I don't think that is what is happening here."
"I don't see a difference," said one of the others. This one Naomi knew. She had been in Naomi's First Wave/Second Wave seminar the previous spring. "This is a case of male penetration of a designated women-only space."
Penetration, thought Naomi. Oy.
"Designated by whom?" she said instead.
"By ... the college," the girl sputtered, outraged.
But in fact there was no official Webster designation for Radclyffe Hall, Naomi would discover when she looked into the matter. There was nothing there at all in the way of official designations or bylaws. Radclyffe Hall, like the other houses on Fairweather Road, had attained its distinction of habitation through a phenomenon far more subtle than official language, a phenomenon that would return to bedevil her life again and again over the following years: institutional tradition.
Tradition! Fine for a Broadway musical about a shtetl on the Russian steppes, fine for the shtetl itself (like the one Naomi's own great-grandparents had long ago fled, in that classic, crushed-in-amber American story). Fine for a holiday table setting or a recycled joke gift at Christmas. Fine, even, for the Webster seniors' own smashing of their ceremonial clay pipes against the Stump on the eve of their graduations — the ritual that most Webster alumni associated with the Stump — or any of the myriad other Websterian rituals. Not so fine for gender designations in the swamp of ideological ferment that was American higher education (subdivision: Liberal Arts), New England, circa 2006.
No wonder this would become Naomi Roth's defining moment, and the thematic overture to what came later. No wonder it would focus attention on her, just at the delicate moment when President Coulson announced his retirement and commenced a yearlong victory lap of alumni gatherings and honorary degree ceremonies, as a committee of trustees, consultants, and faculty members convened to begin thinking about a successor.
When Naomi, to her great chagrin, found that she was expected to serve as a member of the search committee (this news was delivered without fanfare in an email from Dean Stacek), she imagined she'd be able to wiggle out of it without much difficulty. She was already teaching her usual First Wave/Second Wave seminar that fall, and co-teaching a literature/history course on feminist utopias, and she had agreed to take over a freshman seminar on Ann Bannon for a queer theorist on maternity leave (an offer she regretted almost immediately as she reread the Bannon novels for the first time in years, finding them far less compelling than she'd remembered). Also: She had a ten-year-old feminist of her own at home that year, who furthermore was entering a phase in which all topics, from the profound to the banal, must be argued as a point of principle, which was exhausting. Also: The Radclyffe Hall situation was taking more and more of her nonexistent free time. But when she phoned Bob Stacek to explain — with appropriate regret — her situation, the bastard declined to excuse her.
"You were requested," he said bluntly, managing to communicate that Naomi's participation had been neither his idea nor his preference. "I'm afraid we'll have to insist."
Requested by ...? By one of the trustees, she was told, though Naomi was not to know which for some months. This person had read the previous week's New York Times article about what was happening at Radclyffe Hall. Attention was being paid, Stacek informed her, somewhat tersely, to how things were being "handled."
How Naomi was handling things, at least thus far, involved pretending that every interrogator who came to her about Radclyffe Hall was a fellow intellectual engaged in a genuinely curious and open discussion on the subjects of gender fluidity and the "trans experience," and that the variously outraged students, parents, journalists, and alumni were as interested in thoughtful, unemotional debate as she herself was. This was a folly of one, of course, but so far it had disarmed everyone from the various students to the New York Times writer (whose name, as a lifelong reader of the Times, she'd readily recognized), and the serious (i.e., not-political, not-satirical) coverage had been, as a result, rather encouragingly dignified. The issues Radclyffe Hall raised were valid and even essential topics for scrutiny at a place like Webster, she liked to remind people, and as pertinent and pressing as politics, class, religion, race, or any time-honored -ism. "Universities are not static environments as a rule," Naomi had insisted to the New York Times reporter, who, gratifyingly, reproduced her words exactly and in the right order to boot. "Stasis is the last thing we want. Webster is a place where discourse happens. This is a place where ideas come to meet one another." And then, as if she hadn't been reading this man's byline for decades, she asked him what his feelings were on the subject.
That line in particular — a place where ideas come to meet one another — where had it sprung from? It sounded like something she'd been fed years earlier, when she and her ex-husband had trained for their VISTA year at a campus in the Appalachian Mountains. (Though VISTA, in its wisdom, hadn't sent them to the Appalachian Mountains or any place like the Appalachian Mountains, but instead to a picture-perfect village in northern New England, complete with steeple and general store. She and her ex-husband, Daniel, had separated a decade later.) Still, when it emerged, unbidden from her own mouth, it had sent a little trill of rightness through her. The old good fight. Still there, after all.
"But this particular dormitory, as I understand it," said the reporter, "is meant to be women only. Why would you choose to live in such a place if you wanted to be male?"
"That's not a question I can answer," Naomi said. "I'm sure you wouldn't want me to speculate about how a given student might feel."
"Do you think," the reporter continued, "that a self-identified male in a female-only space has a right to complain of discrimination?"
Naomi frowned. She was just formulating her response when the reporter upped the ante.
Excerpted from The Devil and Webster by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Copyright © 2017 Jean Hanff Korelitz. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I am a graduate of Dartmouth and I became interested in this author since she is an alumna of this college and that the setting for the novel is a vague reproduction of the school. This connection surely contributed to my enjoyment of the book. But I would recommend it anyway. One complaint: Would a college president be so naive about so much of the obvious issues in play on today's campuses?