Literary pursuit of female insight

Women's Perspectives

March 05, 2000|By Ben Neihart | Ben Neihart,Special to the Sun

Novelist Francine Prose, in the Feb. 13 issue of the New York Times Magazine published a one-note rant about the "stupid and narcissistic" onslaught of woman-oriented pop culture. She torched Anna Quindlen, Oprah, Oxygen, iVillage.com, "Providence," Faith Popcorn, Women.com, "Bridget Jones's Diary," "Judging Amy," "Allure," Diane Keaton, Meg Ryan, and "The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing" (though, weirdly, she didn't even mention Lifetime, "television for women," and, sadly, her deadline preceded the premier of "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-millionaire?")

She's a mean one, Francine Prose. And she's tough. Loves "The Sopranos" and "Independence Day" and "Anna Karenina" (which, you know, isn't women's fiction!). She thinks the fact that women watch "Providence" on a Friday night "raises the heartbreaking possibility that contemporary women's lives are so painful that what they desire is a good cry and some brainless, narcoticizing amusement -- a fantasy in which the stresses and irreconcilable conflicts of family and work are magically resolved by the closing credits or the final commercial, a chance to assuage their grief and worries with the bright optimistic promise of buying a brand-new lipstick."

Gulp. Francine Prose, I'm not a woman, but you READ MY MIND!

It never seems to occur to Prose that you can change a TV channel, stop reading a lame book, click on Slate.com, or CNN.com, or the New York Review of Books -- even if you're a woman. Never seems to occur to Prose that you might be watching "Providence" while you're sipping red wine while you're talking on the phone while your boyfriend massages your shoulders while lobster bakes in the oven while Mary J. Blige plays on your stereo, that you might have a sort-of ironic relationship with Oprah and Bridget Jones, that you may love them and hate them and laugh at them and laugh with them and then, when you're with your friends, forget all about them. It's this playfulness -- the utterly unserious relationship that most of us, men and women, have with pop books, TV and movies -- that Prose doesn't get.

Elissa Schappell does get it, and in "Use Me" (William Morrow. 320 pages. $23), her first novel, she shows off a big talent for cloaking hard-edged philosophy (the "serious" novel's true coin) in the playful fabric of a bittersweet pop "women's" novel. "Use Me" charts the halting, painful progress of Evie Wakefield from her teens into her 30s. Though it is actually a "cycle" of 10 short stories, "Use Me" works a bigger canvas: By the middle chapters, the narrative has attained the heft and even the grandeur of a seriously good novel. It takes romance, relationships, religion, death and fathers as lightly and as seriously as any smart, sane person you know.

The novel starts with an erotic, humiliating encounter between teen-age Evie and a sullen French boy, moves through an exhiliarating, hilarious dog-show set-piece and then lingers expertly on the first of the book's five emotional and aesthetic high points, a delicate high-wire gamble that pays off big.

It's a moment in the title story. Evie plays the sycophant/ groupie- girl to Michael Morris, a horror-show of a man, a novelist whose work "described the senseless brutality he had inflicted on women, especially his wife."

Evie and Morris sit in a bar, and Morris demands that Evie tell him something personal, something real, about herself. Evie fidgets under his gaze, changes the subject, but when she does finally erupt, it's with the kind of cold, searing monologue that works like the best moments of Neil LaBute ("Your Friends and Neighbors," "In the Company of Men"):

"I've got lousy rhythm. I can't slow-dance. I try to lead. It drives my father nuts. I've got to close my eyes and give myself over, literally safety-pin myself like a scarf to my partner and let him move me. I'm lousy in bed because of this. It's true. I'm a terrible lover. I'm afraid to lose the power of being the one who's acted upon, the passive one, the one who doesn't risk anything except perhaps my lover's disappointment."

Evie wants to be one of those metallic Mary Gaitskill girls, so cool and impermeably masochistic, but she keeps exposing her inner Sally Bowles. The fascinating thing, though, is how Schappell keeps turning Evie, showing the different aspects of her character. Perhaps most startling is Evie's frank, utterly convincing religious yearnings, which mesh so naturally with her wannabe bad-girl persona. In short, Evie is one of those rare fictional characters you want to actually meet, befriend, stay close to.

By the chapter/story "Wild Kingdom," Evie's father is dying of cancer, and her family, so tightly wound with grief and anxiety, starts to act out in strange, comic ways. And here, again, Schappell gives a familiar story a fresh and devastating twist: This family is not going to break up -- no matter what.

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