Books

The Major Fall, the Minor Lift

Elissa Schappell’s Blueprints for Building Better Girls is a collection of loosely connected short stories, each devoted to the dissembling of a certain female archetype: the high school slut, the college party girl, the wife struggling to conceive, the overwhelmed new mom. The stories try to flip the script on female archetypes, try to show what it is like to be a woman inside the limited domain of a label and its associated judgments, and how the constraints of those expectations bend behavior for better or for worse.

God knows I’m the target market for such fiction. Any woman who has taken her turn in one of these labels—more commonly called “phases”— could be. Whether consciously or unconsciously donned, I’ve made spins across the dance floor in a decidedly not-debutante dress as the drunken disrespected fuckbuddy, the wide-eyed puppylover, the girl you do drugs with in bar bathrooms, the superflirt suspected of stealing boyfriends, the food-obsessed fat girl (as an aside, I think it’s odd that none of these stories tackle what it’s like to be The Fat Girl). And I engaged in the risky behaviors and idiotic decisions associated with each of these phases while also simultaneously rapaciously ingesting any and every movie and television show and novel created for women, by women: HBO’s Girls; Sex and the City; Nora Ephron’s entire oeuvre; the Twilight series; the Something Borrowed series; Jane Austen’s entire oeuvre; and even that comic strip Luann, which is like a poor woman’s Cathy. I wanted to love this book, was ready to love this book from the moment I clapped eyes on the Barbara Kruger-inspired cover photo (so redolent of marquee images run on the women’s website Jezebel, a website I, of course, love).

There is so much potential in these stories, so much raw material. The characters feel like trembling martini glasses filled to the brim with repressed sadness and alienation, just waiting to be spilled into disaster. I found myself flipping through to the end of many of the stories to skim the last few paragraphs, just to make sure that everyone was still alive, that no one had committed suicide or matricide or any other of the horrifying –cides. And there are some moments of real power: a mother, on the phone with her childish long-time anorexic adult daughter, remembers that daughter’s birthdays and birthday cakes backwards through time. A twenty-something playwright, held up by a mugger, is abandoned right there on the street by her self-obsessed starving artist boyfriend. A son hears a story about a duplicitous girlfriend and declares that girlfriend a “bitch” and a “slut,” not knowing that the story is actually about his own mother.

The stories are powerful not only because they are at times breathtakingly dark but also because through that darkness any woman reader will be able to see those flickering versions of herself. I flinched at the ways in which these characters absorbed the world’s harsh judgment and let it poison whatever water was left in their wells of self-respect. Then, dying of thirst, they turn into beggars for love and affirmation, and leap into the arms of the first man who asks them out for a drink, no matter how incompatible, inappropriate, or just plain evil he may turn out to be. (And yes, they all leap toward men; I also think it’s odd that none of the stories tackle what it’s like to be The Gay Girl.) I flinched because I am all too familiar with this well of self-hate; I know what it does to a girl to turn and turn and turn to the outside world for a thing so needed—that love, that affirmation—and come up empty-handed every time, not ever realizing it must be first found inside herself.

Unfortunately, the great mirror these stories hold up is all cracked through with Schappell’s writing style. Her prose often reads as if she had been writing late at night, and then found herself too tired or too busy the next day to line-edit.

Ross was the same. He would have stayed in the water all day it if weren’t for adult swim. When everybody had to get out so the moms in their skirted suits, which never really hid their cellulite-pitted thighs, could stand in the three feet and smoke, or swim sidestroke, heads above the water so they didn’t mess up their hair. What is the point of swimming if you don’t put your head underwater? It’s like kissing with your mouth closed.

And:

Paige couldn’t help wondering if Charlotte worked. She knew it was wrong to judge women who didn’t work, to view them as witless and pathetic. After all, feminism was all about equality, and giving women the power to make their own choices. She couldn’t help it, though. She wanted to ask, but because she thought she might really like Charlotte, she didn’t. It was better to wait. You never knew.

And:

It isn’t easy to meet men, let alone carry on a relationship when, for all practical purposes, you’re a single mother. Even though Terry was around, it wasn’t like Emily and Paige lived with their father, or he ever took care of them. Not that I’m complaining. My daughters have always come first. I have no regrets.

There’s nothing exactly wrong with these sentences, but there’s nothing exactly right with them, either. They faintly smack of those trade fiction excerpts printed in the back of Redbook. Or perhaps Schappell was aiming for extreme naturalism in her narrative voices. After all, if a writer truly stays inside the limits of realist first-person narration, she’ll soon discover that her characters can’t, and won’t, think or speak in beautifully crafted paragraphs full of wordplay and literary references. But an artistic choice of strict naturalism seems unlikely when one considers the fact that the narrative voice barely changes from story to story. The three quotes above are taken from three different stories, the first narrated by a teenager, the second, by two young mothers, and the third by a fifty-something divorcee. The lives and behaviors and concerns of these women are wildly different, but they share one voice, one oddly flat, affectless, unoriginal voice. The stories almost read as if Schappell had put so much energy into outlining these potentially fascinating characters that she ran out of gas before fully coloring them in. They never quite coalesce into believable individuals, always remain a little off, their seams showing like badly hung wallpaper. And among Schappell’s many oddities of style, the oddest is how almost all the characters use a strange anachronistic mid-century musical movie kind of vernacular. Heavens! They say, or Don’t be a fool, as if while drinking and writing Schappell had been playing AMC in the background. In “The Joy of Cooking,” the main character—a twenty-four-year old living in New York City—asks her mother, “Did you ever cook for Daddy? When you were courting?” and later utters, “Gee, this is fun.” Schappell has stated that one of her inspirations for this collection was early twentieth-century female etiquette manuals, and it seems as if, in reading them, she allowed their language to filter into her writing style. The mystery, though, is why she decided to do this.

The stories also try—relentlessly—to be funny, and very often fail. Jokes come off either as conscious jokes—you can almost hear the “badum-ching” in their aftermath—or just slightly miss, so that instead of laughing out loud, you’re left scratching your head. For example, in “The Joy of Cooking,” the narrator considers her anorexic daughter:

Fifteen was the year Emily started complaining about not being able to find clothes that fit. “Why don’t they make double 0 sizes?” she’d ask saleswomen, whose expression of barely disguised jealousy made them look bloated with envy.

00Emily, license to purge.

Schappell continually takes aim at such humor—the almost defeated but still somehow indignant bawdy blue humor of a Long Island lady barkeep, heavy on puns, the kinds of jokes one mutters out of the side of the mouth while lighting a cigarette—and while she usually lands on the dart board, she never hits the bull’s-eye. I would bet good money that Schappell is hilarious in person, but it’s so difficult to insert this kind of conversational, situational, relational wit into the mouths and minds of fictional characters.

And the world of these women is not all that convincingly rendered, either. The stories are littered with such Chekovian guns that never go off: little detours and asides that never lead anywhere, minute details of setting and prop that never seem to hand up any further insight into character or plot, that in fact cloud the whole reading experience with a mounting sense of pointlessness. In the opening paragraph of “Elephant,” there is this line: “Before Charlotte left to visit her family in Virginia, she had given Paige a leather change purse embossed with a pigeon (an inside joke).” I went through that entire story waiting to find out why and how that pigeon had become an inside joke, but Schappell never brings it up again.

Is that the point, though? To make a literal inside joke between the two characters that even the reader is not allowed to access? Is this the end-game of realism? Stories so blandly narrated, as chockablock with mundanities and milquetoast inner monologues, as blanched of symbolism and secondary meaning as real, everyday life actually is? If this is style, I reject it. I can accept that every single moment of a given day cannot always be shot through with deeper meaning, that much of life is just sitting in traffic and filling out tax forms and buying Clorox and that these banalities do not in fact hold potential keys to a deeper comprehension of our existence, but isn’t this why we read? To make some order of the universe, to enter a world in which the everyday can become the extraordinary, if not through the author’s attempt to imbue a larger meaning into a narrative, then at least through his beautiful prose rendering of that world? The simpler the subject, the more beautiful the medium must be.

So it seems as if the author wants only to take security camera footage of women’s lives; to simply record, not frame. But Schappell has stated in interviews about this book that she is, rather, attempting to get behind the scenes of these women, and the arc of each of these stories reaches for that very uplift, that larger meaning, which their style meanwhile tries so furiously to hold at bay. Schappell clearly has sympathy for her characters. She wants to make their voices heard, she wants the reader to recognize the soul inside the stereotype. Nothing is resolved, but a glimmer of redemption is often woven into their endings, if only the redemption that comes with a character’s choosing to throw her shoulders back and keep her head up in the face of impending personal disaster.

Sometimes while reading these stories I heard those famous Leonard Cohen lyrics playing in my head:

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth,
The minor fall, the major lift,
The baffled king composing hallelujah

In tackling such a huge subject, Schappell seems to have baffled herself. The stories have a slapdash, flim-flam feel, as if the author had given up, or run up against a deadline, or become lost in the wide kingdom of her talents. The stories strive, strain, for the major lift, but always fall short; it appears that in the end, the author did not care too much for the actual composing of music.

Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.