Sunday Morning! A Tale of Two Novels
My grandmother, bless her heart, was the sort of woman who would come visit us for dinner with a bottle of wine from the grocery store, apologize profusely for how bad she thought it was, and keep drinking it throughout dinner- because, sure, it was terrible, but it was already paid for!
I’m the same way with books: if I’m reading something and I didn’t like the first quarter, I figure it might pick up in the second; if I didn’t like the first half, okay maybe the second gets better; if I didn’t like the first three-quarters, well, there’s not much left to go…
Which isn’t to say I thought Stephanie LaCava’s novel The Superrationals was terrible, per se; it just wasn’t very interesting to me and I held out hope to the bitter end that interest might blossom. It is the not-quite-coming-of-age story of a young woman who works at a major auction house in the art world and her best friend, whom she barely tolerates, as well as the important art world men who take sexual and emotional advantage of these two women. Along the way, there’s a sort of Greek chorus of bitchy interns and plenty of clever pithy observations, and the story lays bare the seedier interpersonal sides of a “multimillion dollar industry.” Powerful men in the art world, it seems, are also shitty.
But, in the end, it didn’t feel so revelatory and it’s hard to root for the dog just beneath the overdog. All of the characters are people from fairly privileged backgrounds who are striving to build glamorous careers for themselves, and their high level of education doesn’t quite save them from being exploited; and, well, it’s not exactly virgin territory at this point that young strivers are exploited on their way to becoming future exploiters.
Here’s the thing, though: I could just be overstuffed with these stories of young urban professionals who suffer. The barriers to entry for most artistic fields have become pretty much insurmountable if you’re not from a fairly privileged background; at this point, it’s hard to imagine a taxi driver’s daughter paying her way through a prestigious MFA program or renting an apartment in Manhattan while working an unpaid internship, etc. And so, we’re sort of “all booked up” with novels about young MFAs and striving art gallery employees who get treated badly by powerful men, and maybe in the end they cash out their trust funds and find something more fulfilling to do. But, of course, the problem with power is power; it’s not that people “like us” are not the ones in power.
In artistic terms, there are two problems with this situation: in which the creative fields have become “professionalized” to the exclusion of all but a certain class. First off, it makes for some pretty sterile and uninteresting art; let’s note the recent trend of “eat the rich” stories wherein privileged young creatives skewer the people who are slightly more privileged than themselves. It’s reminiscent, at best, of bitchy Ancien Régime memoirs from 18th century Versailles. Which nobody reads anymore. And, alright, maybe the problem with power is simply that power is boring.
Secondly, it’s hard to think of a better explanation for America’s endless and insufferable culture wars than this: Our mass media is made by privileged young white liberals with family money living in cities, telling stories primarily about themselves and their experiences, for a country where most people make less than $50,000 per year, and are effectively invisible. In other words, for as shitty as you have been treated by the slightly-more-powerful, you still have control over the production of cultural legitimacy. Maybe prop the door open for others.
What’s fairly interesting is I actually read a second novel this week about a young girl’s coming of age and the older, more powerful men who take sexual advantage of her, and I was completely enthralled by it. Lynn Sharon Schwartz’s 1989 novel Leaving Brooklyn, which I found by sheer chance in Village Works NYC, is the story of Audrey, a young Jewish girl in the equally cloistered world of Cold War era Brooklyn, dealing with a wandering blurry eye, the outcome of an injury in infancy, a repressed culture, and, eventually, an eye doctor who believes himself unable to avoid taking sexual advantage of her. Audrey’s parents just want her to be normal, an aspirational goal in the era; but she’s actually okay with her altered vision and the unique perspective that her damaged eye gives her. Increasingly, it becomes a point of pride.
Ms. Schwartz was prompted to write the novel after feeling “written out”- she had finished six novels and felt she had nothing left to say. So, she started writing about her own right eye, significantly smaller then the left, and “the ambience of postwar Brooklyn, in which middle-class parents exerted themselves to perfect their daughters,” to make them marriage material. She had set out to write an essay, but found herself drawn to fictionalize a character and scenario around this extended metaphor.
And it works beautifully. Her parents want Audrey to see “normally” and make expensive appointments to have her fitted with a primitive torturous sort of contact lens. Meanwhile, she starts to like seeing the world somewhat differently from those around her. Audrey’s slightly skewed perspective allows her to see how the McCarthyism that her parents despise is not so far from her own thwarted desire to join a sorority and their desire to assimilate to “normal” American life. Everyone around her is so repressed and dishonest with themselves that they don’t know quite what they’re doing; even the Park Avenue eye doctor who deflowers this teenaged girl convinces himself that she’s seduced him.
As we all must know by now, writing about adolescents and their sexual awakenings is fraught with danger, especially in our era of censorious political babysitters. Schwartz handles it perfectly, though. Audrey is not attracted to her doctor- she seemingly submits to his advances primarily because she’s been trained to obey the wishes of adults- but she’s not exactly ruined either; as she negotiates the end of the affair, she takes from it the knowledge that she’s reached the age in which she has a certain effect on men that she’s only seen in movies. Walking home:
a feeling of limitless buoyancy floated through me like breath. It seemed I might leave the earth and sail up unimpeded, as the snow around me was sailing down, and float right over Brooklyn up to where the stars drifted- I couldn’t see them but they were there. I didn’t want to float away, though; I was so enraptured that I wanted to remain here on earth, or maybe just a few inches above, and dance. Everything seemed perfect and right; the world, glistening and abundant, unfurled its rightness and perfection–how come I hadn’t noticed it before? Of course I would have everything I wanted, my life would be all I dreamed. And, even if it weren’t, it didn’t matter; nothing that could happen mattered; it was enough to be alive on this moist and spinning globe…
I could quote the rest of the page, but then I’d be tempted to quote the rest of the book. Needless to say, this is why we read fiction: to discover a novel and writer we never would have encountered if not for an interesting cover, and then feel the need to tell everyone we know: You have to read this book. It’s a future classic of American literature; it just takes time for those ones to be discovered.
I think what’s concerning as art and media and literature become “professionalized” is we’re at serious risk of losing the outsider perspective offered by art. I don’t want to entirely discount the perspective of yuppies either, but outsiders often see more than those inside the boat. And that boat seems to be forever shrinking.
And so, what are YOU reading, writing, playing, pondering, watching, or looking at with a different perspective this weekend?
[Endnote: I would also be remiss not to wish a speedy recovery to our tireless and enthusiastic friend Andrew who is going through some more lousy health issues at the moment. I know he reads these- everyone on Twitter knows!- and his own writing and support are invaluable to all of us. Hope we can share food together sometime in the future.]