A Race Against Reality

Review: 'The Gifted School' by Bruce Holsinger

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Who would bother trying to write a novel of social commentary these days? You know, like Dickens, with Bleak House (1853). Or Trollope, with The Way We Live Now (1875). Or even Upton Sinclair, with The Jungle (1906). However much novelists might think they've found the perfect metaphor—the ideal synecdoche—for laying bare a culture's hypocrisies and inner mechanisms, cultural revelations now come along faster than good novelists can write. Actual events will beat them to the point, and the real world will prove weirder and more telling than any imaginary world could have predicted.

Here, for example, is The Gifted School, a new novel by Bruce Holsinger. A professor at the University of Virginia, Holsinger is a medievalist by training and the author of a pair of historical novels set in 14th-century England: A Burnable Book in 2014 and The Invention of Fire in 2015. But somewhere around 2004, while he was living in Boulder, Colorado, shortly after the birth of his son, he got the idea of writing a novel set in contemporary America—a novel about the pressures parents feel to ensure their children's advancement, the hovering presence of helicopter parenting, and the mad race for credentials.

So Holsinger sat down to write a satirical book that took aim at all the elements in America today that have created our "collective crime against childhood." And he thought that maybe the perfect metaphor—the ideal synecdoche—would be the effort of parents to get their young children into "Crystal Academy," a new magnet school for gifted students in the fictional town of Crystal, Colorado. That effort starts as wishing the best for kids. It quickly develops into a competition to prove the better parent. And it ends in scandals of bribery, falsified records, and a race to the bottom of human behavior in the attempt to push children to the top of the social ladder.

The greatest failure of the novel may be that Holsinger took 15 years to finish it. In 2019, with the revelations of Operation Varsity Blues, reality beat him to the punch. It was hard to miss the reporting about the college-admissions scandal that came pouring out this past spring. Charges were filed against 33 parents, claiming that from 2011 to 2018 they funneled $25 million to a schemer named William Rick Singer. In return, Singer arranged for cheating on standardized tests, falsified records to show participation in extracurricular activities, and bribed college coaches to include the students' names on lists of recruits for athletics. The tiny distinctions formed perhaps the most mockable element of the whole scandal: the narcissism of small differences that led actress Lori Loughlin to pay $500,000 to ensure that her daughters didn't have to go to Arizona State University—but could attend the University of Southern California instead.

How could poor Bruce Holsinger compete? Fiction operates under the terrible burden of plausibility; if something too unlikely happens in a novel, the willing suspension of disbelief is shattered and readers are kicked out of the story. But we can't be kicked out of reality, and actual events are allowed to be as implausible as they like. Holsinger's The Gifted School has already received some praise for being timely, coming so rapidly on the heels of Operation Varsity Blues, but in truth it has managed only to fall behind the times.

Holsinger's fictional town of Crystal is filled with the relatively wealthy and relatively successful: not billionaires but the upper-middle class. Liberal in their politics, confident in their moral correctness, and determined to be good parents, they inhabit that strange space of American achievement—where the fundamental (if unconscious) question is essentially the one the Yugoslavian dissident Milovan Đilas worried about in his 1957 study, The New Class: How do we take personal success in an ostensibly egalitarian system and turn it into what is essentially property that can be handed to our children? If higher education in America is defined as a meritocracy—and if education credentials, getting into prestigious schools, are the key to social status—then what can we do in pursuit of the not unadmirable goal of helping our children succeed?

One answer is the relentless training of children—teaching to the test, in essence—cataloged in Amy Chua's 2011 Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (although Chua's book is more self-mocking than many who cite it seem to understand). But another obvious answer is to cheat. Even $10 million in donations won't necessarily ensure a child's admission into the most elite colleges these days, but what William Rick Singer promised was certainty: For much less money, he could guarantee admissions by gaming the system.

And gaming the system is really what the parents in The Gifted School are after. They don't actually believe in education. In truth, they tend not to believe that education has any particular content. All they want is the credential for their children. The central characters are the mothers—Rose, Lauren, Azra, and Samantha—who met at a de rigueur baby swim class (a nice detail) 10 years before the story begins, and now they all hope to get their children into the new magnet school opening in the town.

Holsinger switches voices a little too often, following the internal narration of six different characters, including one of the husbands, some of the children, and a South American housekeeper who also hopes to get her grandchild into the school. All that switching of perspective leaves the story a little disjointed, and it prevents Holsinger from developing the depth of character he needs to turn his potboiler of a social novel into something a little more profound about the human condition. By about two-thirds of the way through the book, the reader already knows who is going to fall into evil in the name of good. And pretty much how they are going to do it.

In a recent note in Vanity Fair, Holsinger revealed that he didn't really grasp his own work. The fictional events in the novel, like the actual events in Operation Varsity Blues, are signs of the victorious vulgarity of Donald Trump, he explained. That seems to run against the fact that his characters are all standard-issue upper-middle-class liberals, and the fact that his original impulse for the story came in 2004, when Trump was invisible in the socio-political landscape.

Even more, it vitiates the insight of the novel's social commentary. The people who voted for Donald Trump weren't the ones who cheated their children's way into social advantages, trying to lock down as inheritable property the success they found in America’s thin educational meritocracy. The people who voted for Donald Trump were instead the ones disgusted by this New Class.

We get Trump not from the moral disaster of people like those in Bruce Holsinger's The Gifted School. We get Trump instead from a moral disgust with characters like that. Yes, Donald Trump is a strange figure for the disgust to choose as its expression, but novelists are supposed to understand this kind of social confusion. Novelists are supposed to give us insight, even as reality dashes ahead of them.