30 April 2007

Love and Boredom

Cathleen Schine’s Complicated Chick-Lit

  • The New Yorkers. Cathleen Schine. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

Cathleen Schine, the author of seven novels, has quite fairly gotten pegged as a writer of highbrow chick lit. Her heroines are smarter and also older than is typical of the genre. They write biographies, own bookstores, and go on Darwin-themed cruises to the Galapagos to celebrate their divorces. But, more crucially, they suffer from the standard chick-lit problem (all alone) and receive the universal chick-lit cure: marriage or reconciliation or at least sex with a charmingly cardboard male lead.

When Schine published her first book, in 1982, nobody called it genre fiction. John Updike wrote in the New Yorker that her debut, Alice in Bed, was “sprightly,” for whatever that’s worth. Other reviewers agreed that Schine, as a comic novelist, was serious business and assumed that in subsequent work she would add “a little more weight.” Schine kept producing novels, but she didn’t get serious, exactly. What she did was become a prolific specialist in the literary equivalent of a Diane Keaton vehicle.

Her heroines, like their author, are always quick-witted and accomplished. Rameau’s Niece (1993), Schine’s third book, reads like a spoof of A. S. Byatt’s Possession. An uptight young scholar transcribes the text of a shockingly torrid romance and at the same time embarks on one of her own. But where Byatt’s fictionalized poets seem authentically passionate, Schine’s invented erotic novel is gleefully obscene. Intertextuality happens, but pleasure is clearly the point.

Since Rameau’s Niece, Schine’s heroines have steadily gotten older and they’ve also slowly shifted away from their literary preoccupations. The Love Letter (1995) follows the slight and awkward affair between a middle-aged bookstore owner and her 20-year-old employee. Helen tells people they ought to read Rilke, but really the books are window dressing. The Love Letter got made into a Kate Capshaw movie. In Schine’s second-most-recent, She is Me (2003), the scholar-heroine’s primary interests are adultery and writing a screenplay of Madame Bovary (aka “Mrs. B.”).

As Schine’s writing has become more assured, she seems to have stepped self-consciously into the role of the virtuoso of the light women’s novel. Her new book, The New Yorkers, has little to do with literature, which is to say that none of Schine’s romance-minded protagonists seem to be reading it. The novel revolves around six banal people who live on the same Upper West Side block. For the first time, the story is simply composed of a marriage plot, without the usual complications of novels and papers and lectures and screenplays. These people’s interests are their dogs and their apartments, and it’s their dogs and apartments that bring them together.

This seems to me, on Schine’s part, not only a way to be popular but also a way to be brave. The most winning part of her work has always been that she writes deeply conventional stories about unconventionally appealing women. To take away the heroine’s literary trappings, to leave her with only an interesting mind, requires Schine to be very sure of her own wit indeed.

Schine’s heroine often has the misfortune of looking happier than she is. In Rameau’s Niece, Margaret writes a bestselling biography but still gets treated as the faculty wife of her star professor husband. Part of the problem, she thinks, must be her “jolly” face. So Margaret sits sullenly at academic dinner parties, wishing she looked “sallow and severe and haughty.” Jody, the teacher in The New Yorkers, tries to fix the same problem by complaining to coworkers about her insomnia. She wouldn’t do this, Schine writes, if she “looked as sleepless as she was. But Jody’s eyes were clear and bright and no dark circles swelled beneath them.”

It’s all too rare, and not just in chick lit, that a woman protagonist isn’t blandly pretty in the same way that she’s totally bland or, alternately, tortured and wraithlike. Schine’s heroines don’t look exactly how they feel, and that’s reason enough to read sincerely what can seem like a silly book. Another is that Jody, underneath her smooth skin, suffers from a problem that crops up frequently in Schine’s fiction: the problem of being the most perceptive and least engaging person in the room. Rameau‘s Margaret smartly phrases it the following way, imagining herself as the unspectacular New Jersey skyline: “You over there may ridicule us over here, the New Jersey lights seem to say, but look, just look who you’re staring at, and look who we get to watch!”

Jody’s biggest romantic roadblock is that she walks around all day practicing jokes on herself (she takes up knitting because she’s a spinster) and yet remains cool and unfailingly dull when dealing with others. The more she thinks, the harder it is for her to talk. It’s a dilemma that feels real, and I’ve never read it so vividly articulated as in parts of The New Yorkers. In a typical scene, “Jody lay in bed, furious.” She has been reprehensibly boring with the chemist she admires. This is a standard chick-lit situation, and we’ve known from the beginning that the chemist is the one who will save Jody from spinsterhood. But then something perversely lovely happens. Jody, still furious, silently rants:

He had confided in her, looked to her for sympathy. And how had she received his confidences? With the same breezy, casual manner she received everything. She might as well have been at school. ‘The cucumbers in the salad bar are always so dry,’ another teacher might remark. ‘Ah, well,’ she would respond with a cheerful smile, ‘no drier than the radishes.’

We know how this exchange ends, and it ends with the radishes. Jody always tries to say the right thing and she doesn’t get it wrong, exactly. But looking and sounding appropriate when you feel you’re not makes for an uncomfortable disconnect, and Jody, until the final pages, is uncomfortably lonely. She goes to the movies with other teachers whom she knows aren’t her friends. She’s lived in the same studio apartment for decades and thinks a lot about the color of the paint. When the novel begins, Jody has just repainted the walls peony yellow and likes to tell herself it casts a nice light. By the time it ends, she’s fallen in love and her dog is dead, but she hasn’t really changed much. Her inner life is as strange and supple, and no less detached, than it was at the outset. What would people think, she wonders, about an apartment with a well-worn and obtrusive dog bed but no dog?

The New Yorkers is the odd romantic comedy of manners in which the characters rarely have their hearts in what they say and do. The chemist presents Jody with flowers on their second meeting, but only because he feels he ought to give her the ones in his hand. And there’s something of Jody in a younger neighbor who absently says to her new dog, “You’re the only one who understands me.” It doesn’t really make sense, but it sounds like the right thing to say. These are people who want to be generous and, more than anything, to be reasonable. Despite what the girl says, they don’t seem to want to be understood. The ways Jody and her neighbors fall in and out of love and make conversation don’t feel unrealistic, but they do feel perfunctory. Is it any wonder that Jody chooses for her lovers the two age-appropriate men she happens to meet on her block?

Jody and her novel are equally intelligent, but it doesn’t seem entirely wrong to suggest that both suffer from some weightlessness. The heroine lies awake at night, waiting for a late marriage plot to sweep her off her feet. But it’s just as easy to imagine Jody the figure and Schine the writer in a novel that does the opposite: burns down the house, breaks up the marriage, or, better, does something formally inventive. It’s not that the structure of chick lit is unworthy of Schine’s talents. But it does seem (and, then again, this is the central appeal of her novels) that an estrangement exists between the original minds of her heroines and the purposefully derivative roles they’re bound to play. Jody is aware that she’s part of a game, and the game is easy enough that she doesn’t always pay attention and has time to notice funny things about the other players’ shoes. Really, she looks bored, and I don’t think the chemist can fix that.

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