[27 April 2011]
One night, college student Craig Clements-Rabbitt got drunk, borrowed a friend’s car, picked up his date, Nicole Werner, then ran the car off the road, killing Nicole.
Or did he?
Author of eight novels and seven books of poetry, Laura Kasischke is a supremely talented writer deserving wider acclaim. Kasischke is a Michigander, as am I, and though her University setting is fictional, it is clearly modeled on the University of Michigan, where she teaches creative writing. Other cities cropping up in The Raising are real places: Bad Axe, Frankenmuth (home to a lovely mill where you can imbibe tangy cider and munch crisp apples whilst sitting amidst drifts of blazing fall leaves), the inaccurately named Brighton. The weather is pure Michigan: freezing late Octobers, when the trees are bare but the snow has yet to fall, rainy springs, heavy blizzards that can blanket the most evil places with innocent, chilly white coverlets.
Shelly Lockes, sole witness to the accident, sees Nicole alive at the scene. She warns Craig, who appears unharmed, not to move his girlfriend. Then the paramedics arrive, or maybe it is only one paramedic, which Shelly later realizes is strange. Also strange is the paramedic’s brusque manner, the way he demands Shelly leave immediately, without giving a statement. But Shelly is stunned and injured herself. She obeys.
In the months following Nicole’s death, Shelly contacts the Dean of the University where she works, the same school Craig and Nicole attend, in a fruitless effort to correct the misinformation appearing in the media and spreading across campus. She telephones the local paper numerous times, visits the police department, even tries the FBI, all to no avail. Lovely Nicole Werner of Bad Axe, Michigan, high-school valediction, Omega Theta Tau pledge, is dead. And obnoxious, pot-smoking, hard-drinking Craig Clements-Rabbitt, mediocre student and all-around jerk, is to blame. Omega Theta Tau, a sorority filled with the rich daughters of rich mothers who were once Omega Theta Tau sisters themselves, is out for Craig’s blood. And nobody in authority—the University Administration, the Pan-Hellenic council, the police—will try to stop them.
In fact, the University Administration, the Pan-Hellenic council, and the local police are happy to let Omega Theta Tau kick up a fuss around Nicole’s death, effectively diverting attention from the disappearance of Omega Theta Tau pledge Denise Graham. According to her sorority sisters, Denise got into a car one night and never returned. And what of it? Girls leave college all the time.
Shelly Lockes isn’t buying this. Neither is Craig’s roommate, Perry Edwards. Each is certain the truth is out there. Like Mulder and Scully, they will pay dearly for their single-minded efforts.
When Perry, an upstanding young man who is literally an Eagle Scout, begins spotting the visage of Nicole around campus, he seeks the advice of Professor Mira Polson, teacher of a popular freshman seminar on death.
Mira has problems of her own. She is the mother of toddler twins who prefer idioglossia—twin language—to acquiring English. Worse, her marriage to house-husband Clark is rapidly deteriorating into ugly, alarmingly physical four-letter exchanges. The Dean is making ominous noises about her research and upcoming tenure review. When Perry, a sophomore, begs to audit her freshman seminar, she sizes up his starched t-shirts, ironed jeans, and perfect manners, then reluctantly consents.
The Raising is told from numerous viewpoints, each character filling in more of the story until the plot comes together in a stinging assessment of sorority life and University administrators who model themselves after ostriches. In an stubbornly realistic series of choices, Kasischke refuses both the characters and the reader the satisfaction of winning, let alone revenge. The wicked, the losers, and the powerful elite who give academia such a bad name literally get away with murder. It’s a maddening state of affairs, one that would feel less upsetting were it not so accurate.
Kasischke is a droll, unsparing chronicler of academia, coolly weaving cell phones, I-Pods, and the glowing lights of sleeping computers into the novel. Students wear flip-flops in all weathers. Their voices are perfectly captured snippets of inarticulation, replete with meaningless repetitive words such as “like”, “I mean”, and “you know”. Students ask professors if papers really need to be ten pages long, and if so, what font size? Alcohol rolls through campus in a thick ribbon; students smoke themselves stupid. Girls cut themselves.
As for the administration, its members do their utmost to smooth things over: Nicole’s death, Denise’s disappearance. When Mira Polson’s research comes a bit too close to local events for comfort, she is wrongly accused of various transgressions. Shelly Lockes, a hardworking member of the campus community, will also learn that honesty comes at a terrible price. Kasischke reminds us repeatedly that academia remains possibly the last workplace, excepting the government, where the highly placed may behave abominably and get away with it.
At 461 pages, The Raising, is impossible to put down, so clear your calendar before you begin reading. Kasischke’s writing talents are very much evident here, such as her ability to render the banalities of student speech patterns while creating a setting by turns luminous, hallucinatory, and unsettling. This is a horror story created not of things that go bump, but of the mundane, making it even more unnerving: The Raising is not soothing bedtime reading. This college town, outwardly bucolic, is a night sort of place, a locale where the innocent and just are fewer and farther between than they appear. Even the youthfully perfect beauty of the college girls becomes foreboding, for they are too perfect, verging on the surreal, their uniform loveliness masking a deep well of immorality.
Craig, Perry, Mira, and Shelly eventually pull together, and as the plot gains speed, almost all is revealed. And while little of what Kasischke writes will shock—-that hazing is alive and well, that it is vociferously condemned but little is actually done about it, that the good man or woman doesn’t get tenure-—the reader is still indignant. You want the good guys to win. Barring that, it would be lovely, in an awful way, to see the more reprehensible characters get their comeuppance. But Kasischke refuses us that satisfaction. We learn the truth about Craig and Nicole, we learn about the fallout, and we are made to understand how it could happen again. We are not rewarded with either the meek or heroic inheriting the earth. Instead, we are given the undeniable pleasures of an extraordinary novel, one successfully incorporating literature and horror both realistic and gothic—-arguably the best kind, for what frightens us most but that which is imaginable? We get the kind of prose people call “shimmering”, and the author’s refusal to tie everything up in a shiny romantic bow.
And these things in themselves are wonderful gifts from a wonderful writer. We need books like The Raising, and we should be damned that grateful writers like Laura Kasischke are out there to write them.