Cherchez la femme


I’m about a midway through a book that a number of people have recommended to me. Its a first novel from a celebrated young adult novelist. And its good. The language is crisp, the dialogue funny and realistic, its rife with the little embarrassing details, the first person POV effortlessly conveys the arrogance and uncertainty of a certain type of intellectually advanced (if not psychologically) adolescent male (not that I would know :)). But I keep on stopping, and having to put the book down.

The main problem I have with this book is its central concept. The main character is obsessed with an ephemeral, mercurial, troubled girl who is obviously going to come to a bad end. This is foreshadowed by the title and a stylistic conceit of counting down to an event.

We never know much about this girl, unlike the rest of the characters her behaviour is oblique and inconsistent. Now, I get it. This is because the narrator never really understands the girl she’s a cipher for desire, for unrequited love, for femininity. But its been done before; and better.

I have read about a version of this girl in over a hundred different books but I have never met her. Maybe I’m the wrong gender, but I don’t think its that. I think its because she only exists in fiction. In a type of literacy fiction written by a late twenties male author looking back on his misbegotten youth and idolising/destroying the memory of that girl he wanted but could never have. I’m not asking for realism in character creation because real life people are more boring, more inconsistent, more fragmented than anything in fiction. However I need some suggestion that characters are more than a cardboard cut out representing the fickle of nature of women.

Because of my awareness of this literary trope when I read this book instead of dissolving myself in a fictional world I am constantly aware that the characters are fictional, the story is contrived, I can see the strings behind the puppets. Like Brecht’s epic theatre but for books. Now that can work in some stories (Jasper Fforde) but only when the disconnect is intentional. It is not here.

The second issue is that this type of story has been done better elsewhere. For example in the Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides where at least there was the impression that the girls had some kind of interior life. I understand that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’, that all writing is interrelated to what has come before. For example in horror you can work within genre assumptions (sexually active blondes who are too stupid to live go into dank basement and become killer fodder) or play against them (Buffy (oh how I miss Buffy!) and Scream (which is meta enough to outlines the ‘rules’ of horror while still working within them)). But you should still add your own interpretation on things and this book takes too much and adds too little.

So I’m torn. A lot of people whose opinions I respect love this book. I hate not finishing books but this book is infuriating me. I can see that the author is a good writer but the lazy misogyny sticks in my craw. Maybe I am missing the point? Or I am just being grouchy because I’m underslept, I have a contact stuck in my eye, and a million Londoners are probably going to vote in an ineffectual fascist just because they like his hair? OK rant over, back to work.

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