By Christian Viveros-FaunĂ©
By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Tom Sellar
By Tom Sellar
By Jessica Dawson
By Tom Sellar
By R. C. Baker
By Tom Sellar
In their debut books, Melissa Bank, Kate Christensen, and Amy Sohn give us female personae who find no steady satisfaction in work, sex, or themselves, and go on about it for page after self-deprecating page. Their characters share some or all of the following qualities: flippant, insecure, man-hungry, frustrated, drunk, neurotic, and desperate. They're also single, college-educated, white wannabe writers living in New York, just like the real-life women who thought them up.
Taking a major cue from Helen Fielding, whose Bridget Jones at least managed to carve a witty vernacular from overweening narcissism, this new, hot crop of gal scribes has been featured prominently in New York magazine as "the lit world's new It' girls." All confess that their work is highly autobiographical, which is a common enough hook, though such unabashed navel-gazing is usually reserved for the therapist's couch. Still, discretion won't net you a $275,000 advance, which is what Bank got for The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishinga sound investment, it turns out, since the book quickly shot to the top of The New York Times's bestseller list.
Bank's novel, if you can call a loose assemblage of not-always-connected stories a novel, is the most sophisticated of the lot. In part because her misadventures are so smartly rendered, we empathize with Jane Rosenal, Bank's struggling wiseass, as she travels from adolescence to adulthood, through breakups and illness and the fraught search for a sustaining career and the right mate. Poor Jane is always just a little less glamorous and successful than the people who surround her, and she comments on this with the acerbity common to those who've learned to wear humor as a shield. When one beau takes her to St. Croix to visit the home of a beautiful ex-girlfriend, Jane finds herself on the outside of a worldly circle. "It occurs to me that all my close friends live in the tristate area," notes Jane with a dour shrug. Much later, she meets a decent fellow named Robert, who initially resists her efforts to snag him by following a Rules-like guide to manhunting, but succumbs when she manages to be "herself." This is the same herself who compares career tracks with a slinky female friend of Robert's and notes, "I think of my only award, an honorable mention in the under-twelve contest to draw Mr. Bubble."
Jane, who's in her mid thirties in the adult portions of Girls' Guide, intended to become a prominent book editor, and in fact dated one, an older man named Archie. She, however, never rose above mere assistant, and was fired from that job, winding up in advertising. Then again, Jane never seems fueled by anything close to ambition; her principal vocation is meditating on her inferiority. Girls' Guide concludes with Jane moving toward blissful coupledom, as though all the agitas up to this point could be resolved by making out with a solid male. Born to serve, it's clear that Jane will fold herself into the very domesticity the book is ostensibly supposed to question, all the while being sarcastic enough about her choice to avoid being called what she is: a throwback.
At least the female character at the center of Kate Christensen's In the Drink, Claudia Steiner, remains mostly unreconstructed by the novel's end. Pushing the limits of self-hate, Claudia spends her time chugging vodka in her grimy walk-up, fretting over the bitchy boss whose trash novels she ghostwrites, trying to win the true love who doesn't know she's alive (possibly because he's turning tricks with men), and battling her high-minded German academic mother, whose sporadic appearances stimulate the most arresting passages in this book. Much as I admire Christensen for refusing to neatly solve Claudia's problems, and for making her skeptical of the monied sleekness that increasingly passes for culture in downtown New York, her portrait of an inebriated bumbler often verges on cruelty. Just when you think Claudia couldn't sink any lower, there's one more abusive guy/wicked hangover/work-world insult to push her under. You wish Christensen would be generous enough to offer a hand and yank her girl partway out of the gutter.
Equally lost, just with more verve and the excuse of being fresh out of college, is Amy Sohn's randy Ariel Steiner (yes, that's two downtrodden ladies named Steiner). Ariel struggles with her weight and tries her damnedest to come up with enough action to fuel her regular no-holds-barred sex life column in a giveaway rag called City Week (read New York Press, where Sohn has, um, a regular sex life column). Getting trashed in Lower East Side haunts like BarNacle (Max Fish), going out to see performance artists like Fran McLaine (Karen Finley), Ariel is forever trying to keep her chin up so it won't double, as my sister and I are wont to say.