Fiction Chronicle

Nell Freudenberger. The Dissident. Ecco. September 2006.

Heidi Julavits. The Uses of Enchantment. Doubleday. October 2006.

Elizabeth Merrick, ed. This Is Not Chick Lit. Random House. August 2006.

Marisha Pessl. Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Viking. August 2006.

Elizabeth Merrick edited  This Is Not Chick Lit, she explains in her introduction, to save female readers from our worst impulses. Left to our own devices at the local Barnes & Noble, it seems, we stumble to the bestseller table and buy the first pink paperback we pick up with our manicured fingers. How can we not? “After the millennium,” Merrick writes, “it became nearly impossible to enter a bookstore without tripping over a pile of pink books covered with truncated legs, shoes, or handbags.” Like the candy machine prominently placed in a middle school cafeteria, the chick-lit publicity apparatus plays to cravings young women can’t resist. “Cotton-candy entertainment,” as Merrick calls it, is OK for dessert (she herself reads Us Weekly on the treadmill); the trouble is, many women have it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A steady diet of chick lit “numbs our senses”; “shuts down our consciousness”; and “beat[s] us over the head with clichés that promote a narrow worldview.”

Instead of chick lit, Merrick would like us to read its diametric opposite: not chick lit, formerly known as fiction written by women. Aimee Bender, Holiday Reinhorn, and Binnie Kirshenbaum boldly present the romantic woes of women who aren’t obsessed with Mr. Right; Judy Budnitz, Samantha Hunt, and Mary Gordon take on subjects as challenging as Joan of Arc, the Unabomber, and a woman who likes hanging around the public library. Francine Prose and Cristina Henriquez defiantly assume male voices in stories that have little do with women’s experiences. Henriquez’s protagonist lovingly recalls his ex-girlfriend, but mostly what he remembers are her bangs, her wrists, and “her navy blue knee-highs pulled up past her knees like a tramp.” Whatever it is, it’s not chick lit.

Given Merrick’s strenuous exertions, it seems worth considering this strange new genre. Not chick lit, she insists, “employs carefully crafted language to expand our reality”; “increases our awareness of other perspectives and paths”; “grants us access to countless new cultures, places, and inner lives.” Some of these stories are even good. Others, less so. Curtis Sittenfeld, author of the 2005 surprise bestseller Prep, contributes a story about a racist, obsessive-compulsive woman who wreaks havoc at a women’s shelter. “Hulking and monstrous,” alone and afraid to be touched, the narrator volunteers at the shelter because she seems to believe she can save the kids from their slatternly mothers. When a new volunteer (“bumpy and greasy”) threatens her status as favorite surrogate mom, she suggests she has no choice but to strangle the woman. She’s a second-wave feminist, overfed and run amok. What our heroine really needs, we’re made to understand, is a boyfriend, like her roommate’s, who will toast her Eggo waffles.

The protagonists of Merrick’s collection are certainly not chick-lit material (they don’t do lunch, they’re not shoe fetishists, and their sex lives aren’t especially fantastic), but neither are they the young women we recognize or admire. Merrick seems strangely unprepared to acknowledge the existence of women like herself—the intellectually alive, productive female actor in the world is hardly to be found in This Is Not Chick Lit. In place of the middle-class suburbanite’s fantasy of wealthy young urban singles, we get the young and urbane woman writer’s caricature of what used to be called female hysteria. Are the articulate, prolific writers we turn to for visions of life beyond girlhood able only to imagine a string of revived Ophelias?

This year’s Most Notable girl protagonists don’t grow up, they go crazy. Recent literary fiction by and about young women seems to rest on a peculiar premise: that young adulthood is only, and always, compelling when aggressively perverse. So the heroine of Heidi Julavits’s third novel revisits her stardom at the center of a rape controversy; Marisha Pessl’s aptly named Blue discovers she’s been abandoned by two abusive parent figures, notes signs of depression, and gleefully writes a book about it. Both of these girls turn the resources of middle-class upbringings and native intelligence toward shaping themselves not into women but specimens, equipped only for examination.

In Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Blue van Meer is a bright high school student with a political science professor for a father. Her mother is long dead, and now other people around her keep dying, too. Which is lucky for Blue, because she wants to be a writer, and catastrophe (she explains) is the only thing worth writing about: “All worthwhile tales possess some element of violence.” And, “without the disturbing incident in this chapter, I’d never have taken on the task of writing this story. I’d have nothing to write.” Blue’s opportunism might be read as lampooning the culture of victimization, in which all kinds of private disasters are worth enduring, inducing, or exaggerating in pursuit of a book deal—except that Pessl seems not to be in on the joke. Here is Blue recalling how she found the body of her favorite teacher, “hung three feet above the ground by an orange electrical extension cord”:

Her tongue—bloated, the cherry pink of a kitchen sponge—slumped from her mouth. Her eyes looked like acorns, or dull pennies, or two black buttons off an overcoat kids might stick into the face of a snowman, and they saw nothing. . . . And her shoelaces—an entire treatise could be written on those shoelaces—they were crimson, symmetrical, tied in perfect double knots.

This appears to be satire (on the self-absorption of teenagers) or maybe an acid trip, but in fact it’s neither. It’s the substitution of “precocious” style for the feelings and perspective of a teenage girl confronted by her first corpse. Thus the frantic garrulity, the colors and curlicues. Unable to trust the plot’s theatrics—a parade of nightmarish high schools, paternal abuses, and fat men pushed into swimming pools—to stand on their own, Pessl renders them unnervingly cheerful through “vivid” description. A girl named Blue, conceivably, might notice the color of the extension cord from which her teacher hangs, and even her cherry pink tongue. But the three similes for the dead woman’s eyes, presented à la carte, are a little much. As for the treatise on shoelaces, if such a thing exists, Pessl probably wrote it—but only if the laces were crimson, and attached to a corpse.

It seems important that Blue never falls in love, except with her father, her (female) teacher, and her own self-indulgent hysteria. She also never reads a book her father hasn’t recommended. Rather than the recognizable and also more elusive flashpoints of sexual experience and intellectual maturity, we have a morbidly self-stimulating anxiety of influence. Blue is too old to be properly precocious, but Pessl seems to think she can stunt and beat her into a heroine.

Heidi Julavits’s Uses of Enchantment is a more complicated case. A more mature writer than Pessl, Julavits doesn’t take her teenage heroine’s perspective as her own. Instead, she assigns her characters the task of ferreting out that perspective—the same task she assigns herself. The rapt analysis of Mary Veal (a virgin, and a piece of meat) is not only the subject of the book but the exclusive interest of every adult allowed a speaking part. It’s a convenient tactic and not necessarily a hopeless one. The trouble is that Julavits confuses writing a fascinating novel with creating an object of fascination.

Teenaged Mary, we learn over the course of the novel, was abducted one day from lacrosse practice by a demoralized out-of-work prosecutor from her WASPy town. She returned a month later, having been sexually abused. Or not. Both Julavits and Mary coyly refuse to say what happened, and through this coyness the author turns Mary from a girl into material. The adults around her become a chorus, desperately asking her where she’s been and what she did, all for the purpose of deciding whether she’s a victim or a deviant.

None of Mary’s investigators is equipped to figure her out; none is able to serve, even provisionally, as the reader-surrogate that detective fiction, even the postmodern, post-post-Freudian kind, cannot do without. The therapist assigned to her case wears ski pants to the office, agrees to let her call him “Beaton,” and isn’t even certified. The laid-off prosecutor who supposedly kidnapped her is a hapless type who accidentally killed a pedestrian and lives in craven fear of his ex-wife. Chapters titled “What Might Have Happened” suggest that Mary hopped unbidden into his car, and was able to stay because he was too frightened not to play along with her Humbert Humbert fantasies. It’s only by comparison to these halfhearted, halfheartedly constructed creatures that Mary appears radiantly compelling. Take away the girl and you’re left with a sloppy satire; remove her interrogators and Mary becomes nothing at all.

At points, as Mary pursues her more extreme lines of provocation, the book’s dialogue feels both spontaneous and sharply devious. The therapist, entranced, suggests a game of role reversal. “Are you cured?” asks Mary. “Put your clothes on, Mary,” says the therapist, for Mary has put on his coat over her bra, and now says: “That’s Doctor to you.” It’s possible to believe, for pages at a time, that even a serious adult could live in thrall to the heroine’s voice.

But there are no serious adults in this book. It’s more like a group of people in an amphitheater, each of whom shines a flashlight on a teenage girl, who raises her own torch above her head and pours more light onto herself. Julavits deliberately obscures her heroine’s sexual history; sex, in the world of not chick lit, is always, like writing, a game, a deception—What Might Have Happened. The novel suggests a connection between the power of Mary’s virginity and the power of her narrative imagination: each gives her sway over other people, but only so long as she keeps it to herself while pretending to give it away. It’s a game that’s fun for a while but bound to end badly—once Mary has sex, or admits to it, she won’t interest us anymore.

There’s no continuity between the adolescent Mary and the adult Mary, no way to carry what’s distinct about youth into maturity. The book turns mean in the present-day sections, which follow an adult Mary who’s returned home for her mother’s funeral. Mary’s own life has become impossibly gray and flat, and the third-person narrator savages everyone else in sight, in part to preserve her by comparison. When two women are described as “Country Club vipers,” we know instantly what we’re going to get: a dull satire of wealthy women who are dreaded and dreadful, way too tan, and have “perfected the charade of appearing to observe their surroundings when in fact they [are] critiquing the room through the corners of their mouths.” Mary’s sisters, similarly, are each introduced by a single attribute, “Regina’s prickliness and Gaby’s lumpish disinterest,” and nothing either says or does will complicate these depictions. Their dead mother, we’re told, was an anorexic alcoholic, a toxic woman who survived on white wine and pickles. A distasteful female acquaintance with capped teeth is described as either a former hockey goalie or (without even a hint of empathy) a victim of domestic abuse. Where once there was role play, coyness, even a kind of joking—now, with the grown-up Mary, there is nastiness, disguised as social criticism.

Nell Freudenberger’s The Dissident is not primarily about female adolescents—which, in some ways, makes it an ideal lesson in how they ought to be treated. The book’s primary concerns are a visiting Chinese artist named Yuan Zhao (the dissident of the title); the Traverses, the wealthy Los Angeles clan that hosts him; and the ways they anxiously deceive each other and themselves. The Traverses’ daughter Olivia and her girls’ school peers exist tangentially among adults and their concerns. These teenagers exhibit a complex ambivalence toward the postadolescent world of parents and teachers and potential lovers, sometimes courting and sometimes deflecting its attentions.

Freudenberger has an unashamed fixation on how her characters dress themselves up in the morning. Olivia’s mother, Cece, notes how her son’s girlfriend, from a rougher part of town, wears her sexuality on her nonexistent sleeves, whereas her daughter’s friends, with their loose shirts and boudoir lingerie, “showed off their bodies, but in covert ways.” These are girls who call attention to the straitjackets of their starched uniform blouses not by tearing them off but by wearing black lace contraptions underneath. It’s a small and gratifying measure of how the author gives adolescents credit for subtlety and also makes plain the complicity between deviance and the rules that inspire it.

The Dissident turns out to be about performance as much as perception: about the stunning diversity of its everyday manifestations and the way the mundane is needed to produce the exceptional. Clothes are by no means beside the point. The rebellious June, one of Olivia’s classmates, also receives rapt attention for her studied subversion of the school’s dress code:

She was wearing the same uniform as the other girls, and also she was not. She was wearing the lavender dress . . . but underneath it she had put on a pair of wine-colored corduroy pants, which were splattered with paint, an addition that had the effect of making the dress ridiculous; or rather, since the dress was already ridiculous, making a comment about its ridiculousness. . . . There was something strange about her shoes as well: it took a moment . . . to see that she had painted the stamped leather band on each shoe white, and rest of the upper black. The inversion was jarring, if you were used to the ordinary model.

The inversion, in short, isn’t possible without the overwhelming presence of the mundane—which, as personified by Olivia, does not appear irredeemable either. June’s misbehavior, which escalates in a series of increasingly spectacular performance-art pieces, is neither thoroughly self-involved nor catastrophically self-destructive. (June does not get raped, murdered, or abducted; she goes to art school.) Rather, her aesthetic vision grows naturally out of a world of well-intentioned, mostly harmless regulations, to which Freudenberger devotes as much attention as she does to June’s brief explosions of brilliance.

Much of The Dissident’s plot hangs on questions of artistry and fraud; June turns out to be a real artist, but the distinction is not absolute and is finally almost irrelevant. Each of Freudenberger’s characters has the capacity to act originally or conventionally, to become artist or counterfeiter, depending on the circumstances. Freudenberger provides a world against which her characters—adolescents and everyone else—can test themselves without making or breaking the novel, which is confident enough to include them all.

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