Let’s assume that fiction writers have some say about what traits to bestow upon their protagonists, that the muse doesn’t just arrive unbidden and deliver a character whole. And let’s suppose that three seemingly bright women, two of them well into their thirties, all happen to publish much-hyped first novels one summer—coincidentally, the same summer that Bridget Jones’s Diary is due out in paperback. Marketing strategies aside, it’s worth pondering why none of these authors would opt to create a grown woman for whom one feels something other than abject pity.
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 Fishing—a 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.
Run Catch Kiss is the story of how Sohn, I mean Steiner, gathers up enough of a sense of self-worth to ignore the fact that she gets fired from City Week for fabricating columns (a smidge of fiction, since Sohn has held onto her own gig) and embark on writing a book that sounds very much like Run Catch Kiss. Asked about these life-
into-art correspondences, the twentysomething Sohn offered this caveat in the New York Post: “I made Ariel fatter than I was. I needed to make her [more of a loser than I am] because I wanted to show how much her life changed when she got this column….Also, I like losers.”
And why might that be? The sad truth about this sudden rash of female loser lit is that it invites readers to laugh out loud at women’s sore spots (beauty, competence, sleekness) by concocting heroines so damaged that even the most vulnerable reader can’t help but feel superior. Gliding along on zesty wisecracks and crisply turned prose, what all these fictions say, in essence, is that women can’t really make it unless they self-flagellate, laying bare their neediness and doubt. The work that both the authors and their alter egos do put forth, riddled with dead-end temp jobs, dieting, and the bedding of sadists, holds little real value, anyway, since the gold standard remains snaring a moderately functional man.
Couldn’t just one of these novels have had a woman continue to be stymied by love, but kick major ass in her job? Or had work-world struggles balanced by the pleasures that can be found in a supportive home life? Or introduce us to someone like Anna Shapiro, the protagonist in Sue Margolis’s spunky forthcoming novel Neurotica, who, weary of paltry connubial sex, embarks on a series of lusty affairs (postpartum stomach chub be damned), in part to provide ripe material for her high-profile journalism career? It’s hard to imagine that the only way for a woman’s life to be “funny” is for it to be presented as a series of black holes, where boyfriends and employment utterly fail to provide, and there’s nary an exit in sight except cashing in on the misery.