Bradstreet Gate: A Novel
by Robin Kirman.
Crown, 2015.
Hardcover, 320 pages, $26.

Death and defeat haunt the college novel. College novels—whether they focus on students or professors—typically tell a story in which the shining promises of academia prove not only false but absurd. College promises insight; college novels display the blankness of human depravity. College proclaims the power of reason and dialogue; college novels expose irrational passions and farcical miscommunication. College exalts the life of the mind, while the college novel is the province of sex and death, the two most common means by which our bodies humiliate us.

Bradstreet Gate, Robin Kirman’s new entry into the “Death Wore a Cap and Gown” genre, spins a sordid tale of sex and murder. Repressed, obnoxious, conservative professor Rufus Storrow may or may not have killed his left-wing student Julie Patel. He definitely did have an affair with a student, Georgia Calvin. The book alternates perspectives among three students—Georgia, her troubled friend Alice Kovac, and her friend-zoned spaniel Charlie Flournoy—leaving Patel and Storrow mostly opaque.

The most interesting parts of the book come when Kirman is adding to the list of our bodily humiliations: A new mother goes out for lunch with an estranged friend and leaks milk through her blouse. Kirman details the exhaustion and mental lapses that come with the first sleepless months of parenthood. Her characters face cancer and mental illness, the body attacking itself or attacking the mind.

But Bradstreet Gate is at least as noteworthy for which elements of the classic college novel it leaves out. Kirman’s students have little idealism about the power of education, the power of reason, or the power of the intellect: They come to Harvard ready to attain the power of power. Kirman’s characters talk constantly about power and position. Hints of abuse of power—like the suggestions that Storrow may have been involved in cruelty to military detainees—somehow only add to its allure for these characters. Everybody wants to go to Harvard because Harvard is the entry point to financial, political, and military power.

Her Harvard is a weirdly generic place—we see little of its architecture, none of its traditions. There are college slogans and slang in this novel, but they come from West Point, not from the university where the book is actually set. The use of West Point traditions makes Harvard’s colorlessness seem like a deliberate choice. (Either that or the author, a Yale philosophy major, couldn’t bear to pretend that she respected the traditions of our ancient enemy to the north.) The characters’ academic lives also matter little. Storrow teaches something or other that gives him the opportunity to spout self-important colonialism. Georgia studies art. But there’s no sense that these characters might discover something in the intellectual life that could change them, disrupt their plans, catch them in its jaws. Bradstreet Gate has garnered a few comparisons to The Secret History. There are many reasons this comparison doesn’t work—Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel is immeasurably superior in all respects, from prose to characters to suspense to themes—but one obvious reason is that in The Secret History it really, really matters that the characters are studying ancient Greek.

There are some sharp moments in Bradstreet Gate, especially when Kirman is portraying the ways students from working-class backgrounds simultaneously long to be Harvard types and hold themselves aloof. Alice, for example, makes up earthy Serbian proverbs in order to add that extra authenticity to her admissions essay. (Alice is really the only recognizable human being in this book, a bitter and damaged girl with a diva’s tongue—“You know, I missed a first-rate funeral for this”—and more than a hint of repressed lesbianism. She’s a caricature, but only in the way that undergraduates are often caricatures: a persona, not yet a person.) There’s a strange longing for honor wafting through the novel, a wistful longing with no connection to the characters’ real lives. There are a couple memorable lines: “Only someone truly dirty would contrive to look so clean.”

But overall the elements of this book have been done better elsewhere. There’s a whiff of “P.C. Gone Mad!”, which would be more compelling if Storrow himself weren’t so utterly unbearable. These are unlikable characters one and all, which would be fine—we can’t all have likability privilege—if the prose style gave the reader something to enjoy while we spent time with them. But instead we get just piles of colons and semicolons. I suspect there’s an average of four colons per page. The punctuation in this book is a true abuse of power.

Bradstreet Gate is explicitly post-9/11 and implicitly, perhaps more deeply, post-Great Recession. The post-9/11 setting hints that power can never be responsibly wielded. Georgia, weakened by her baby and her marriage, underslept and sloppy, serves as a contrast with the successful financier and data-miner Charlie, who is slowly realizing that he has become complicit in American government abuses. Georgia, at least, has something to live for. She’s survived. Charlie and Alice are left with the same old problems they had when they first came to Harvard, pre-hardened, already self-consciously cynical. They clawed their way up—against real odds—and they see nothing from their new vantage point but the old flat insufficiency of the self.

In this stasis, I suppose, the life of the mind receives yet another humiliating defeat.  

Eve Tushnet writes from Washington, D.C. She is author, most recently of Amends, a novel.