A Squid in the Closet

Jessica Olin

  • Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
    Picador, 406 pp, £12.99, September 2005, ISBN 0 330 44126 4

Depictions of the American teenager are not exactly scarce. Over the last few years we’ve seen queen bees, mean girls, freaks, geeks and dorks of all kinds. What we have not seen is someone like Lee Fiora, the reluctant heroine of Curtis Sittenfeld’s first novel, Prep, which is a thoughtful, measured account of life at a top East Coast boarding-school. In a field dominated by shock tactics and deliberate quirkiness, Prep is a straightforward, serious, funny book.

Ault School, at which Lee is a scholarship student, is a Waspy utopia where discretion is paramount. At Ault, money is invisible – ‘nobody carried wallets’ – and yet it’s everywhere: ‘You caught a glimpse of it sometimes in things that were shiny, like the hood of the headmaster’s Mercedes, or the gold dome of the schoolhouse, or a girl’s long, straight blonde hair.’ Racism is supposedly non-existent: to Lee, it seems ‘like a holdover from my parents’ generation, something that was not entirely gone but had fallen out of favour – like girdles, say, or meatloaf’. And ambition is perhaps the worst sin of all: there is a ‘desperate aversion to seeming like you wanted anything’. The students are like entries in a cosmic yearbook: Aspeth Montgomery, ‘the queen of our class’, and her male counterpart, Cross Sugarman; Darden Pittard, ‘our class’s cool black guy’; Alexander Héverd, from Paris, rumoured to be ‘a druggie’; and Conchita Maxwell, daughter of Ernie ‘the Oil King’ Maxwell and his much younger Mexican cleaning lady. Finally, there are Lee’s roommates: Dede, ‘literally, a follower’, whose obvious Jewishness disqualifies her from consideration as a Serious Babe, and Sin-Jun, a deceptively mild Korean who hides a squid (among other things) in her closet and later attempts suicide. It’s an entertaining line-up, but it serves as mere backdrop for Lee’s endless, obsessive critique of herself.

Back home in South Bend, Indiana, Lee had been ‘curious and noisy and opinionated’, part of a close, bickering family. Lee’s mother approaches Ault with a sweet Midwestern awe: on meeting an older student, she exclaims: ‘“Oh, gosh” … as if a senior were as rare as a black pearl or an endangered tree frog’. Her father, a salesman at Mattress Headquarters, strides through Parents’ Weekend with hand outstretched, performing a gee-whiz routine that belies his resentment. He enjoys provoking Lee by reading aloud from her roommate’s Cosmo: ‘Ho-hum sex? … We’ve all been there.’ But what really gets under her skin are his asides on wealth and privilege: ‘Must be nice to have a pool’; ‘Nothing like inheriting a whole lot of money to make you think you must really deserve it.’ Lee is enraged by these statements; because of their crudeness, as well as for what they reveal about her father, and because, secretly, she shares his discomfort.

Adrift at Ault, she develops a variety of coping strategies. At first, she tries to make herself invisible, at least until she can figure out how to behave correctly: ‘I … tried to just be a body in the world, moving forward … I would pass over surfaces without leaving a mark.’ Often her view of a situation in which she’s meant to be involved resembles an out-of-body experience. Confronted by a teacher about this apparent indifference, she knows she’s supposed to respond, but ‘I felt further and further from the last thing she’d said. Perhaps I could change the subject entirely, reply to a different topic – I could say, And that’s why parrots make really good pets. Or, It’s because I’ve always wanted to visit New Mexico.’ When a series of thefts shakes the dorm, Lee begins to doubt herself: ‘I wondered if it was possible that I was the thief. What if I had opened Dede’s drawer in my sleep? … I didn’t think I had stolen the money, yet it also did not seem impossible.’ Not knowing what secrets she may be hiding, she develops a fear of being exposed: ‘I was terrified of unwittingly leaving behind a scrap of paper on which were written all my private desires and humiliations. The fact that no such scrap of paper existed, that I did not even keep a diary … never decreased my fear.’ And yet a part of her does want to engage: she wants her ‘life to start’. When Conchita proposes that they room together, Lee has already considered and rejected this option in her mind: ‘I saw us staying in the dorm on Saturday nights, donning our pyjamas early, ordering Chinese food, throwing water balloons at each other – spazzing out. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to spazz out. I wanted to have boyfriends, I wanted my life to be sorrowful and complicated and unwholesome, at least a little unwholesome.’

Lee wants her life to be interesting, even if that means it’s less happy. Being a teenager, she believes that the way for this to happen is to get involved with boys. But she is at once hopelessly naive and ridiculously defensive. When Tullis Haskell, a junior she’s never particularly noticed, performs ‘Fire and Rain’ at the talent show, she imagines a scene in which she compliments him in the mail room on his performance and ‘soon, inevitably, we’d be a couple.’ Noticing that other girls in the audience are reacting in a similar way, however, she slashes and burns her way through her own fantasy: ‘No! I thought. No! Then, abruptly, I thought, Fine. Fine, Tullis. Go out with another girl instead of with me. I could take care of you, I could make you happy, but if you don’t believe that, then I can’t convince you.’

At the same time, she is aware enough to realise that ‘if I were a boy, Aspeth was the kind of pretty, bitchy, unattainable girl I myself would like; certainly I wouldn’t find a so-so girl and then stare hard inside her to see all the ways she was worthwhile.’ Her matter-of-fact dismissal of herself is perfectly pitched. With Cross, ‘I forgot, over and over, that the fact of my wanting something wasn’t enough to make it happen.’ And yet, in a way, this is exactly what happens. It’s precisely because Lee is such a totally unreliable narrator – it’s not just that she says one thing and believes another, but rather that she believes both things at the same time – that she is so convincing, and so sympathetic: ‘I always worried someone would notice me, and then when no one did, I felt lonely.’

Afraid of alienating Cross, unable to communicate with her parents or teachers, she turns in on herself: ‘I was living my life sideways. I did not act on what I wanted, I did not say the things I thought, and being so stifled and clamped all the time left me exhausted.’ When she finally gets an opportunity to express herself to a reporter from the New York Times, she manages to offend almost everyone: her parents, her classmates, the entire Ault community. Ostensibly a feature on ‘the changing face of American boarding-schools’, the piece instead skewers issues of money, class, race and privilege at Ault, with Lee as its star witness. And Lee realises, almost instantly, the nature of her mistake:

Being on scholarship was bad, being unhappy was worse, and admitting to either one was worst of all. I had been indiscreet. That’s what it was. How much better it would have been to fuck up in a normal, preppy way – to get caught the week before graduation smoking pot, or skinny-dipping at midnight in the gym pool. To make politically charged complaints to a New York Times reporter, on the other hand, was just tacky.

There is so much that is right about this book. Sittenfeld captures the hothouse atmosphere of boarding-school, the way you see even people you don’t like in their underwear. It’s all here; the intimate knowledge you get when you live with someone in such close quarters: ‘When Sin-Jun awakened in the morning, her black hair stuck up in the back, her face was pale … her favourite snack was those crunchy, spicy dried peas that come in foil packs, and also, anything caramel; she most feared snakes, even pictures of them; and the person she loved best was her sister Eunjee, four years younger.’ The names: Tig Oltman, Tab Kinkead, Horton Kinnelly and Sally Bishop. Little touches, like a lacrosse ball, ‘a rubbery white globe like the egg of some exotic creature’, or a teacher’s comment scrawled on a Latin test: ‘Saluto, Martha! Another marvellous performance!’ Sittenfeld uses phrases like ‘blue book’ and ‘common room’ without explaining them, and this total immersion is effective rather than irritating. Mostly, however, it’s Lee’s voice that makes all this worthwhile, filled with the dreamy quality that peaks in adolescence, as in this meditation on memory via a poster in the infirmary ‘featuring nutrition trivia’:

Among other facts, the poster informed readers that eating chocolate released the same chemicals in the brain as being in love. From time to time during the years I was at Ault, I’d be at a lunch table, either listening to or participating in a conversation about any number of topics, and someone would say, ‘Did you know that chocolate releases the same chemicals in the brain as being in love?’ And other people at the table would say, ‘I think I’ve heard that too,’ or, ‘Yeah, I remember reading that somewhere.’ But you could never remember where until you were back in the infirmary.

Prep characters don’t challenge any stereotypes, but in life there is always the most popular girl in school, there is always the First Love (of course she falls for Cross, and of course he breaks her heart), just as there are events and rituals that act as catalysts and repositories for symbolism and opportunities for dénouement. Assassin, a schoolwide game where students go around pretending to kill their classmates, really existed, too, before Columbine changed everything. In Prep, these things all feel familiar and expected, but never tiresome. And if the end of the book seems long and full of goodbyes, with lots of ceremonies and last conversations, isn’t leaving school really like this, when the days are ‘sunny and endless’?

In Lee’s final conversation with Cross, he tells her: ‘“If you want to be good at something, you have to practise, and usually you practise by yourself. The fact that you spend time alone – you shouldn’t feel like it’s strange.” But I’m not practising anything, I thought. Or, if I had been: what was it?’ One answer is that all the qualities which make Lee socially maladroit – her watchfulness, her compulsion to gather and analyse information about the world around her, her inability to take a situation at its surface value – are characteristics that would (could) make her a writer. But though we find out in detail what happens to Martha, Dede, Sin-Jun, Cross and Aspeth after graduation, the picture we get of Lee’s post-Ault life is decidedly vague: ‘And so everything has to turn out somehow, and other things have happened to me – a job, graduate school, another job – and there are always words to describe the way you fill up your life, there is always a sequence of events.’

Lee’s voice here sounds odd, disengaged; it also sounds the way it would if Sittenfeld didn’t want to say that Lee became a writer. If, as Lee says, she wasn’t practising anything, if all this Sturm und Drang is for nothing, her life after Ault might indeed seem pointless. Maybe this accounts for the muted tone – because she’s leaving out the obvious. The question of how much of Lee is Sittenfeld is largely irrelevant; but it would account for this uncharacteristic weakness, this blurred patch: the book would have been stronger if Sittenfeld had either figured out what to do with Lee post-Ault or left this section out altogether.

As a 13-year-old in Cincinnati, Ohio, Sittenfeld ‘waged a one-girl campaign’ to convince her parents to send her to Groton, a boarding-school in Massachusetts. It’s hard to imagine that someone who wouldn’t (didn’t?) pretend to be looking for something in their bag in order to avoid saying a fleeting ‘hello’ to someone they had no particular reason to be avoiding could (or would) write so accurately about behaving this way. On 7 September Sittenfeld took to the Op-Ed page of the New York Times to echo Lee’s criticisms (in Prep’s fictional NYT article) of boarding-school culture. She writes that ‘being around one’s adolescent peers 24 hours a day doesn’t seem particularly healthy’ and cites the danger of ‘college feeling anti-climactic, as it can for boarding-school students’. She questions the place of such elite institutions, at least at the secondary-school level, in ‘a world of horrifying inequities’: ‘The self-containment of boarding school can create terrariums of privilege in which students develop a skewed sense of money and have a hard time remembering that, in fact, it is not normal to go skiing in Switzerland just because it’s March, or to receive an SUV in celebration of one’s 16th birthday.’

I wish I hadn’t read this article, because I liked the book so much, and I don’t want to see it as part of a campaign for or against boarding-school. Sittenfeld refers to the ‘pop-culture depictions’ of boarding-schools and explains that ‘they’ve retained a hold on the popular imagination.’ But of all the films, television series and books about American teenagers and their schools, the overwhelming majority are set in public schools (if often wealthy ones). Outside a particular population, which includes the readers of the New York Times, and especially outside the North-East Corridor, most Americans don’t care about boarding-schools one way or the other. Prep at any rate will get a wider audience: Paramount has bought the film rights, though with its episodic, cumulative structure it would make more sense as a television series – the good kind, one that would get cancelled midway through the season.