Another post where I find myself thinking about women, and other things, through the lens of a couple of female artists and an anti-heroic female protagonist created by a female author.
I wanted to like Olive Kitteridge, for reasons having to do with womanness. The miniseries is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by a woman, Elizabeth Strout. It stars a woman, Frances McDormand, who also served as executive producer, and one feels for the position of the woman in her late 50s in Hollywood, who may have to turn producer to get good roles. It was directed by a woman, Lisa Cholodenko, and the screenplay was written by Strout and another woman, Jane Anderson (who has the distinction of having written an episode of Mad Men and three episodes of The Facts of Life). And when the story started and it quickly became clear that Olive was thoroughly unlikeable, I thought that maybe all of these women were trying for a female anti-hero, a laudable goal.
There were so many womany reasons to like this miniseries, which was met with universal critical ecstasy. Unfortunately, Olive Kitteridge is absolutely ridiculous. It could almost be camp, except that it's in such good taste (restrained, full of pretty Maine scenery) that it squanders that opportunity. This slice of misery porn is like a Newbery Medal-winner for an adult audience, or like Precious for affluent white people in their 50s and 60s (i.e., HBO's demographic). Full of scatology and both random and deliberate violence, and every bit as misanthropic as its eponymous protagonist, Olive Kitteridge manages to mock both the hick inhabitants of the small town where it takes place (like the woman who sings Olivia Newton-John's “Magic” while accompanying herself on the grand piano at the family restaurant) and the more modern, worldlier outsiders (Olive's son's uptight blonde California princess first wife and his New Age-y second wife, who indulges her bratty little boy). The miniseries has contempt for every human type – except maybe Olive herself. But its affection for her is mysterious.
Longing, Repression, Suicide, and Poop in a Small Coastal Town
I already knew it wasn't going to get better for me after the first (and, in my opinion, best, because least focused on Olive) of the four segments. But after the scene early in the second segment in which a suicidal young man who fears he may be “bipolar,” like his mother, hallucinates (courtesy of CGI) that Olive, seated on the car seat beside him, is an anthropomorphic elephant eating peanuts out of a bag (not a type of hallucination I've ever heard of being associated with bipolar syndrome), I had to keep watching in fascinated horror, to see if the series could really sustain that level of blindness to its own ludicrousness. And to be sure, the most ludicrous bits occur early on: the elephant hallucination and, in the first segment, Olive getting turned on, maybe for the only time in their marriage, by her husband when he boasts to dinner guests that as a boy he could track deer when dad took him hunting by smelling fresh doe droppings to tell if the doe is in heat. But there are subtler gems in the two last segments: Henry and Olive, facing the emptiness of their future when they learn that their son is getting divorced and therefore they probably won't be grandparents, only to go out for dinner with friends their own age and hear what disrespectful little shits grandchildren are, so that life is equally empty either way; or, in the last segment, where after Olive does this show's version of a “meet cute” with an ever-charming Bill Murray and you're waiting for whatever extremely horrible thing is going to immediately happen to him, she learns at the start of their first date that he listens to Rush Limbaugh.
Feces plays a supporting role in two of the four segments and a starring role in one. We also get treated to: an accidental death; an accidental near-death; an accidental death that may be a suicide; a father who committed suicide; a mother who commits suicide (a “bipolar” woman who thinks there are purple snakes in the appliances); two near-suicides (the woman's child and Olive); a boy who commits murder (a former elementary school student of Olive's, glimpsed only once in the series, in detention, drawing a picture of a person holding their severed head); two young drug addicts who brutalize and threaten to kill the sparse staff and the couple of elderly people at the hospital they're robbing; the sudden death of an elderly woman; the bipolar mom taking advantage of the distraction of the elderly woman's sudden death to score some extra Valium at the pharmacy; an elderly man's stroke; and an elderly man's near-stroke. Dying or coming across someone who has died or is dying is apparently as common as breathing in Crosby, Maine. I'd feel safer in Twin Peaks.
The only moments that might almost be good occur in the first segment, which focuses on the only nice characters in the miniseries, Olive's husband, Henry, and the woman half his age (at least) with whom he becomes infatuated, played by Richard Jenkins and Zoe Kazan. Once upon a time I had the idea of doing a sort of Wide Sargasso Sea version of Madame Bovary that retold the story from Charles's point of view, and the first segment of Olive Kitteridge sort of does that. It's completely baffling why, instead of following the titular character's infatuation with a Scottish (or something – Welsh?), alcoholic fellow schoolteacher, which is made to bear a great deal of the weight of accounting for her subsequent nastiness and bitterness, and which could give us a sense of the person Olive might have been if she were happy – instead we're taken into the inner life of Henry. Which – thanks to the astonishing warmth and openness radiated by Jenkins and to Kazan's delicate performance, both of them playing characters who could otherwise have just been caricatures – turns out to be a beautiful place. I think it's Jenkins, not McDormand, who deserves the acting kudos in the miniseries, although that's perhaps because he's at least given the basic materials for playing a human being.
Yet we don't need to know anything about Henry, so the story of the nobly asexual relationship that develops between him and his naive little employee (namby-pamby, Ned-Flanderish Henry would never be unfaithful to his wife, or take advantage of such a young woman) is pointless in terms of the larger story. Strout's portrayal of Olive has a chic postmodern opacity: even on the rare occasions when she convulsively shows her pain, it doesn't make her more sympathetic (to me, at least) because neither the writers, nor the director, nor the actress is able to show its connection to her compulsion to hurt. (I'm thinking, by way of contrast, of Bette Davis's miraculous William Wyler-directed performance in Jezebel.) And if it's not in the performance, it has to be in the writing. We know that her father committed suicide, but knowing what has happened to an unlikeable character in the past isn't as important in making us understand and (ambivalently) root for them as knowing what they want. Emma Bovary wants her life to be beautiful and exciting and meaningful, and can't face the fact that life is not like that; Hedda Gabler wants control over the destinies of other people because, as a woman in the late 19th century, she has no control over her own destiny; Regina Giddens wants to be rich and have fun in the big city, and knows, as a woman in the early 20th century, if she were a man she could get the things she wants rather than having to go through her brothers and husband. Olive, however, isn't even allowed to really want to run away with her Romantic Scotsman (or whatever): when Olive's husband tells her that this was only a fantasy of happiness, she seems to believe him, and so do we, if only because it's impossible to imagine Olive getting along with anyone.
But then, part of the way through the final segment, it suddenly struck me that McDormand was, consciously or not, playing the character as“autistic,” in the pop media sense, and that was why her relentlessly monotonous performance (the same note over and over, as with her character in Fargo, but with the opposite mood) made sense, contrasting unfavourably though it did with the nuances of Jenkins's characterizations. People seem to love this – critics, cult audiences. Although Olive is a kind of pop-autistic sociopath, however, she's neither a genius nor a badass – let alone both, a la Walter White. She's not completely devoid of decency; she's not prejudiced against the mentally ill; and she's not a bigot. But she's a teacher, wife, and mother who appears to have done everything in her power to make her students, husband, and son as miserable as she is.
There's an interesting subject amidst all of the pointless violence and ugliness: how the repression that once kept incompatible couples together, and sometimes does even now, resulted not only in mutual misery, anger, and resentment, but also in entangling them in each other's lives to the extent that they truly were each other's closest companion, albeit perhaps only as a kind of Stockholm Syndrome in which the more passive partner is in thrall to the more aggressive one. Although, this show being what it is, the message is that all you get in return for even that boon is the loss of your companion, either directly to death or to stroke or dementia or ongoing illnesses and then to death. And more people than we'd like to think are in Olive's position when that happens: estranged from family and isolated in the midst of a community. At the end the show, like Olive, loses heart, and gives her a fake happy ending, gesturing toward the possibility that she'll get a new boyfriend, repair her relationship with her son and daughter-in-law, and develop a relationship with her grandchild. And in fact sometimes such people do redeem themselves as grandparents. For others (and I couldn't help but think of the Vivian Maier doc, watching Olive toward the end), the isolation only worsens.
Sometimes glancing back over this blog makes me proud, and other times it makes me cringe – depending on the post, and depending on my mood. There are times when I can't even imagine what I was trying to do, like when I posited a parallel between the HBO comedy Bored to Death and Madame Bovary – something about boredom moving from the provinces to the urban centers – which managed to be both dubious and pretentious. I thought of that dubious and pretentious parallel, however, when I was listening to Lena Dunham read the audio book of Not That Kind of Girl.
Although only in her late 20s, Dunham affects a bored, world-weary tone, both as a writer and in her vocal delivery. It's especially striking when she discusses sex, which she does often. She has been presenting herself this way since she was in her early 20s: that kind of irony and detachment is her schtick, present even in her physicality in front of the camera, which is what made me think of Woody Allen and Elaine May when I first saw her, in the first episode of Girls. It didn't come as that much of a surprise, then, that Dunham actually quotes from Madame Bovary as the epigraph of NTKOG. The passage (beginning “Deep in her soul, however, she was waiting for something to happen”) does not describe Emma's boredom, but rather her febrile state of waiting, as a young woman, for the adventure of her life to begin. I think we can gather from what follows that the reality of womanhood, for Lena as for Emma, is a lot more of a mixed bag than she anticipated.
Although I know it's a thing that people do regularly, I seldom buy a book by a comedian I like. Exceptions include a Jerry Lewis craze and Roseanne Barr's My Life As a Woman, which I think I found second-hand somewhere. I bought both Russell Brand's My Booky Wook and Craig Ferguson's American On Purpose, but didn't get around to reading either of them (or did I just seriously consider buying American On Purpose but had learned my lesson after Booky Wook?). I gave in and bought the audio version of NTKOG because the online controversies about some of the sexual stuff in it made me madly curious. I'll save my take on the Barry chapter, about what she has taken to calling in the media her sexual assault, for an upcoming epic post about feminism. As for her polymorphously perverse early relationship with her younger sister, it's illustrative of Dunham's dilemma: she thinks like a serious writer, drawn as she is to the murky ambiguities and uncomfortable areas of human sexuality, but she is a celebrity, and one who is best-known for working in the medium of TV, which has never been able to handle much ambiguity. In fact that's the reason for Dunham's unique cultural position: she's bringing to TV a darkly comic, provocative sensibility to a medium in which envelope-pushing always stands out because it is so rare.
Girls, although only a cult show, has undoubtedly brought Dunham to the attention of a much wider audience than any novel by a person in their 20s could have reached, and Dunham, while not considering herself an actress, uses herself – her persona, her body – in her work to great effect, so I don't consider it a great loss to the world that Dunham's celebrity probably will never now allow her to develop into the introspective prose writer she might have been. As with many of the brighter men and women in pop culture (e.g. Morrissey, Courtney Love, Russell Brand, Roseanne Barr herself), I think we see in Dunham a need not only to make art, but to be famous; to have an audience react to and think and talk about not only her art, but her, and to make her relationship to the audience and the culture part of her art.
Nevertheless, Dunham's sense of herself as a public person, in NTKOG, often seems to be in conflict with her sense of herself as a writer. She can't just present a series of personal essays, interesting for their insights; as the quasi-self-nominated Voice of Millennials, she has to present herself (as per publisher instructions?) as giving advice to other Millennial women. At the same time, she's forced to be humble and use quotation marks in the self-helpy subtitle, “A Young Woman Tells You What She's 'Learned,'” knowing the kind of shit she'll catch as a famous Millennial with literary pretensions who was raised by rich artists for daring to suggest that she has any wisdom to impart. I guess that's not so bad – why did Brand call his first book My Booky Wook if not to try to deflect criticism for having the audacity, as a person famous primarily for his drug addiction, sexual exploits, erratic public behaviour, and big hair, to think he had anything of interest to say?
In the one interview with McDormand about Olive Kitteridge that I read, she mentioned that one thing that drew her to the part was that Olive was a "full" and "messy" character – who belches, for example. One can see where an actress might get the impression that to portray a “real woman,” in contrast to the kinds of women we normally see on our screens and on magazine covers, means to portray a woman who is both aggressively flawed and aggressively corporeal – even though I can't think of any examples of being treated to a male character's digestive maladies where it's not played for laughs. Dunham's interest to me as a voice and a performer is centered on her obsession with her corporeality: with nudity, with her body's aches and pains and potential diseases, with food, with sex between clueless young people and all of the ways it doesn't resemble its depictions by either Hollywood or pornography, perhaps especially when it's influenced by the latter.
The reaction of many men to Dunham's use of her body as a writer-performer is a reminder that while men's imperfect bodies – like men's bodily functions – are the stuff of comedy, women's imperfect bodies – like women's bodily functions – easily elide into the territory of horror. Olive Kitteridge, too, borders on body horror, in this case not the horror of the young, nude female body that should be desirable (that's it's only function), but isn't, but the horror of the elderly female body, which inspires revulsion because it can no longer inspire desire. Dunham's use of body horror in her comedy, however, unlike Elaine May's, gives no indication of masochism. She doesn't show us the too-corporeal female as an object of revulsion; her offence seems to be, rather, that she doesn't presuppose a male gaze at all. (Nor does she give us a female gaze in its place: there are no sex objects in Dunham's work, except Patrick Wilson in a one-off episode that seems to take place outside the normal universe of the show.)
Don't Be That Girl
In the prologue to NTKOG, Dunham writes about the derision that greets young woman who try to talk about their lives but who, by virtue of their youth and gender, are thought not to have the “gravitas” to make their stories art-worthy. One of the phases I went through as a teenager was an infatuation with Anais Nin and her diaries, probably sparked by the release of the movie Henry and June in 1990, when I was 15. In that movie, Nin takes up, in both a literary and a sexual fashion, with Henry Miller and his wife, June (played by Uma Thurman). Nin is famous for being exotically pretty, for the lifelong project of her diaries (on a volume of which the movie was based), for being part of literary and artistic circles whose members show up in her diaries, and for a general interest in sexual experimentation that included the claim that she had an incestuous relationship with her father as an adult.
Like other teenagers who want to be writers when they grow up, I kept diaries, and the example of Nin made me think that this was a worthy enterprise, up until I read one essay on Nin and her cult that dismissed her with a single word: “narcissistic.” I tended to like the idea of narcissism; I was a fan of Oscar Wilde, who (as in the quotation from which this blog takes its name) used it to push back against bourgeois sentimentality and the cult of self-sacrifice and duty. Yet it was the particular way in which the author (a man, I'm sure) backed up his dismissal of Nin that made me back away from her example. It wasn't just that she nattered on about herself; he pointed out that she couldn't bear to not repeat a compliment. I understood the implication that was she just another vapid, shallow woman who believed that every event that happened to her or thought that occurred to her was fascinating because she got attention for being pretty, and – since I didn't stop keeping a diary (and have intermittently kept one of some kind throughout my life) – for years I tried my best to never record a compliment, at least about my appearance, even when I really, really wanted to.
I thought of that author's comment when, years later, Camille Paglia dismissed Naomi Wolf's Vagina by calling her a “compulsive diarist.” Between the stereotype of the narcissistic woman, left over from when women did not have access to the public sphere, and lingering sexist doubt that women are able to write as well as men do, we have this notion that when women write about ourselves it's because we're incapable of creating art. All we can do is scribble like silly, self-obsessed teenage diarists. De Beauvoir herself provides a good example of this suspicious take on female literary activity. “Thus it is well-known,” she writes approvingly in The Second Sex, “that [the woman] is talkative and a scribbler; she pours out her feelings in conversations, letters, and diaries. If she is at all ambitious, she will be writing her memoirs, transposing her biography into a novel, breathing her feelings into poems.”
Meanwhile, the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard has riveted the international literary community by documenting his life in the form of six autobiographical novels published between 2009 and 2011. If ever an author might fairly be called a “compulsive diarist,” surely Knausgaard would be it. De Beauvoir herself wrote four volumes of memoirs and a couple of romans a clef. Nevertheless, even today the female author who writes about herself exposes herself to the suspicion that she is doing it not as a possibly misguided artistic choice but because she cannot, by virtue of her gender, create art.
New Yorker fiction critic James Wood frequently bestows the highest praise on female authors, so there is presumably some reason other than sexism that caused him to write a review of Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be? that is deeply distrustful of its interest in drawing directly and openly from the author's life (although he did later claim, bafflingly, that the review was a recommendation), and then, a mere two months later, write a favourable review of the first of Knausgaard's autobiographical novels. It's probably obvious to many that a silver-maned Norwegian guy in his early 40s has more gravitas than a North American woman with whimsical bangs in her early 30s (Heti was 33 when HSAPB? was published), but not to me. Although she's a Gen-Xer like me, not a Millennial like Dunham, the Gen-X Peter Pan (or “puer,” the more exotic term used by Sheila's Jungian psychoanalyst in the novel) probably has more in common with Millennial hipsters than with boomers, which, however, naturally hasn't stopped many Gen-Xers from taking up a stance of hatred toward Millennials. Maybe it's self-loathing.
I thought it was absolutely hilarious that the New Yorker fiction critic distanced himself from the main characters in HSAPB? on the basis of their “privilege”: “They are writers, artists, intellectuals, talkers, and they sit around discussing how best to be. This sounds hideously narcissistic. It is. Who cares about a bunch or more or less privileged North American artists, at leisure to examine their creative ambitions and anxieties?” Really? Is this the same James Wood who went to Cambridge? Is contemplating the art of the novel, which Wood has been doing for his entire adult life, somehow less of a “privileged” enterprise than discussing how best to be? And is Wood upset because Heti's stabs at answering her “religiously important question,” as he calls it in the first paragraph, are shallow, or because having the time to contemplate it is shallow? He doesn't seem to know, but it all makes him uncomfortable.
Two Serious Ladies
Yet this is one of the major questions engaged by the book – and in my opinion, one of the least interesting aspects of it. HSAPB? is deeply concerned with the question of whether the people in it have a right to be making art; whether even making really good art, as Heti's friend, the painter Margaux, does, is a good use of your time in such a troubled world, or whether it inevitably makes you a monstrous narcissist. When an artist takes herself as her subject, she exposes herself (like Francesca Woodman) to accusations of narcissism as an ethical failure and aesthetic limitation; or as an aesthetic failure (as in the case of the female talkers and diarists De Beauvoir describes), meaning that she is shallow, a lightweight. Heti takes on these connotations of narcissism in relation to art, and to the kind of art she is engaged in, but also addresses the possibility that the whole enterprise of art-making is the self-indulgence of the privileged.
At bottom, HSAPB? is the story of two artists, Sheila and Margaux, their friendship and their relationship to art. Warning: spoilers ahead. Sheila, who is spending years trying to write or avoid writing a play that has been commissioned, is having a crisis of faith regarding not only her own abilities but her medium – fiction. Her crisis eventually infects Margaux, who, we have learned, enjoys painting but does not trust the medium: it is not, for her, an inherent good. Wood is right to detect a note of anti-art puritanism in the real Heti's comments in interviews about the motives behind the book's form. Whereas Margaux (as depicted in the book) seems to worry that she should do something useful in the world, however, Sheila is convinced that her own life, and especially her relationship with Margaux, is far more interesting than any fiction she could manufacture.
At one point early in their friendship, Margaux mentions how she has always pined for “a girl as serious as I am.” I found this annoying since it promotes the sexist fallacy that it's difficult for smart, thoughtful women to find similar members of their gender to befriend, which is not a problem that I've ever had. As the book proceeded, however, it became starkly evident that Margaux and Sheila were indeed “serious” in some fundamental, elemental, and rather frightening way (although, interestingly, not in a way that conflicts with finding them “shallow”). Both women seem spectacularly neurotic, though it's Sheila's breakdown we witness. There were moments where Sheila, with her towering writer's block, her indecisiveness and impulsiveness, her simmering self-loathing, and her “puer” syndrome, made me think that this is what it would be like to read Jane Bowles write about herself if she had ever done so in a directly autobiographical way.
For me the best stretch of the book occurs when Sheila, after deciding that she has damaged Margaux obscurely but irreparably, suddenly takes off for New York City and has a couple of banal, random encounters with talkative men: a man in a “copy shop” who keeps trying to gain control of their absurdist conversation about Judaism and gender, and a man in a bar who tries to pick her up and shares a cliched story about his marriage that nevertheless manages to be touching and some thoughts on God. Here Heti shows her skill with dialogue and opens herself up to other people, people who are not like her friends, and the strangeness and opacity and pathos and specificity of the ordinary. Yet while I could have done with more of these sections, and with less of the short, more-or-less impenetrable essay-chapters, the variety of forms employed by the book keep it interesting even as the focus never shifts for long from Sheila's psyche. There are even a couple of long descriptions of Sheila's dreams, which I'm sure many would find obnoxious but which I found both boring and fascinating – especially the second one, which prompts her decision to return to New York, and in which her relationship with Margaux – for reasons the reader will never understand and I'm sure Heti doesn't either – becomes fodder for an epic vision of sexual violence that would make Roberto Bolano blush.
Where Wood – perhaps taken in by the book's marketing, which folded it into the Reality Hunger trend – sees formlessness, I see a tremendous instinct for structuring. In fact, the confrontation and crisis followed by an escape to another location and a return and resolution is the basic structure of many 19th century novels – notably, Mansfield Park (which shares Heti's distrust of theatre). However much she may hunger for “shapeless” reality, Heti can't stop shaping her experience, can't stop finding aesthetic correspondences to her emotions or turning the gathering and relaxation of psychological tension into pleasurable form – just as Margaux, when she tries to make her ugly painting, can't get away from her talented hand. I remember reading some biography of Andy Warhol, or maybe Edie Sedgwick, in which the biographer or interviewee produced the opinion that Warhol developed his method of producing art in a lifelong effort to escape his “talented hand.” Despite what Heti – or perhaps it's only Sheila – thinks, what's fascinating about HSAPB? certainly isn't her friends or her conversations with them, but rather the novel's internal battle between form and dissolution.
How a Woman Should Be
Heti, as if anticipating the kind of response she will get for writing about herself, repeatedly begs the reader to find Sheila shallow, and Wood takes the bait, censoriously quoting her first attempt to answer the question of her novel's title: “I sometimes wonder about [the question], and I can't help answering like this: a celebrity.” Sheila goes on to say, as Wood goes on to quote, that she doesn't really want fame, though, because she wants – in a Jane Bowlesian turn of thought – a “simple life,” which is to say, “a life of undying fame that I don't have to participate in.” It sounds like a strange thing to wish for until one realizes that this, after all, describes how we all act on the internet. The internet wasn't really a revolution in communications technology; it doesn't build on the phone or the printing press. The internet is really a vehicle for giving fame to everybody. In fact the internet can't actually do that, but what it can do is allow everybody to act like they're famous: post pictures of yourself looking cute so friends can envy you and strangers can admire you; blog or podcast about your thoughts as though somebody wanted to hear them. Even if you do develop a following, the kind of fame that the internet has to offer is, in the vast majority of cases, not so great that your life will change. You will not get rich, paparazzi will not stalk you, you will be able to go to the grocery store, and you will not need plastic surgery. Again, however, the more important relationship between the internet and fame is not not that the internet actually makes you famous, but that it allows you to act like you're already famous in public.
And that, I think, is what Heti wants, and what she achieves in HSAPB? (The internet is more of a model here than reality TV, which actually can make you famous enough that you have to “participate in it.”) The quality of fame is the quality of always believing that everyone wants to know everything about you and cares deeply about your crises, and it is in that way, perhaps, that we give meaning to our lives in the easiest fashion in a post-religious world. We've always needed to believe someone was watching us and finding our lives fascinating, and it's probably somewhat less egotistical to imagine that that's the world rather than God. Fame, indeed, may be a large part of how a person should be.
I had a strange experience the first time I saw a copy of HSAPB?, in the Chapters bookstore where I was working. It was the hardcover version with a yellow-and-orange wraparound cover that showed Heti, in almost-full profile, facing another young person, a man, with spiky hair. Although we can only see her face and shoulders and one arm and hand and a small part of the man's face, it looks like they're sitting on a couch, and I assumed that they were at a casual get-together in someone's house. Heti (whom I did not yet know by name but already took to be the author and subject of the book) looks quite young, like in her 20s, and neither pretty nor plain. More striking than the refusals of femininity delivered by the too-short bangs and the strong nose is her expression of slightly disgusted boredom, eyes at narcissistic half-mast, as if she's lost in thought or a reverie in the middle of the party.
I grabbed the book in excitement and carried it all the way across the big-box store to the cash desk to show it to my sister, declaring that I had never before seen someone who looked so much like me. I have had too-short bangs in my life; I have a fair-sized nose; above all, I have worn that expression at parties, and it has been captured in a photo, when I was around the age that the author probably is on the book's cover. When later I learned that Heti was Canadian, it all made sense to me. Canadian women don't look the same as American women; strong noses sneak into public more often; there is less pressure to fit a particular mold. Or anyway, that's the story I told myself to explain why I felt such a strong kinship for this author based solely on a photograph.
Having now googled Heti, I know that we don't actually look much alike at all, a general indefinable Canadianness aside (and that her book bangs are a trademark, not a mishap).
But upon further investigation, there were other similarities besides noses and aloofness. We both started out as playwrights, and attended the National Theatre School of Canada. We have both struggled mightily to complete commissioned plays. According to Wikipedia, Heti took a decade to complete her play, and it was eventually performed, though not by the theatre that originally commissioned it. The commissioned play that I struggled with after my husband and I broke up (right, Heti and I also both married young and briefly) only took me about three years to write, but it felt longer because I spent way more time not working on it when I could and should have been working on it than I did working on it. The commissioning company weren't even interested enough in the drafts to give it a workshop and we eventually fell out of contact. I did, however, have a couple of plays produced before giving up playwriting. Heti describes her menial post-divorce job of sweeping and shampooing hair at a salon while trying to write her play; I have done nothing my whole life but go between bouts of post-secondary education and menial jobs. Heti is a year-and-a-half younger than me. For all of that, I didn't cry out, “It's me!” when I read the book, as I did when I saw the photo. The thing I identified with most in the book, at this point in my life (late 30s), was the struggle of the author – not the narrator – with questions of form. Not for form's sake, however, but for the sake of asking questions about life that, for a write, are inseparable from questions about representation.
HSAPB? gets a lot of hate on Goodreads. Heti appears to be as polarizing a figure in the smaller world of minor literary fame as Dunham is in the larger world of minor TV fame. It all seems to be young women – and probably some who are not so young and ought to know better – frantically trying to distance themselves from narcissism-by-association, in much the same way that ex-V. C. Andrews fans turn violently critical of her, devoured by embarrassment, when they learn that they're supposed to regard her writing as trash. No one is more passionately devoted to proselytizing about how women should and should not be and think and write than other women, especially young ones. Although there are one-star reviews by men, on the whole the men who do read the book (the majority of reviews, positive and negative, are by women) seem to have a much less conflicted relationship with it – and no problem at all identifying with the “narcissistic” author/narrator/main character.
In addition to making other white women have tantrums about their “privilege” (which I guess covers anyone white with a university education, although Dunham is from an extremely affluent background and became extremely successful at an extremely young age, whereas Heti, as far as I know, is from an ordinary middle-class background and appears to have lived in hipster poverty for much of her adult life), Dunham and Heti also freak people out with their explicit and deeply uncomfortable depictions of sex. If you wanted to make diagnoses about the sex lives of women who were born after second-wave feminism from the writings of these two women, you'd start to be really worried. Luckily, I can neither relate to the misery that Dunham and Heti depict nor tell you whether they're more representative or I am. Certainly, it's laudable to depict the ways in which the sex lives of modern heterosexual young women are not always glamourous, as in the movies, or fulfilling and empowering, as they're supposed to be if you're a good feminist, but the conclusions that Dunham and Heti appear to draw about sex do have me worried about trends. In NTKOG, Dunham presents herself as someone who, in early youth, was hell-bent on having sexual adventures, only to learn that this is not possible for a woman because she'll end up unhappy and possibly abused. In HSAPB?, Heti is definitely in an abusive relationship, and seems to be seeking some kind of spiritual experience through her degradation, just as she does with drugs. The question is whether it's necessary for her to seek it in that way – that is, whether as a woman the only kind of sexual adventurousness open to her is abuse – and whether it's possible for her to experience it that way – that is (as with drugs), whether she's really achieving some kind of transcendence in that way or merely indulging her self-destructive tendencies.
The Embarrassment of the Contemporary
Dunham presents herself as someone who knows better, now: to have self-respect with “jerks” is one of things this young woman has learned. That is part of the book's self-help language and self-help leanings, and HSAPB? has also been marketed as, among other things, a self-help book. This seems to be in order to avoid cross-marketing it as a philosophy book, which would imply hard thinking for no purpose to a general audience (or so, I guess, publishers think), whereas “self-help” implies that the reader's going to get something important out of the book by the end that will help them lead a better life. This marketing ploy does, however, reconnect philosophy with the self-help purposes it has often served historically. What most people, including most first-year liberal arts students, want philosophy to be about is asking the big questions about existence, reality, values, and meaning, and maybe even coming to some provisional conclusions. These questions remain important to people, although our present branches of academic philosophy are not interested in addressing them – neither analytic nor postmodern philosophy.
Unlike Dunham, who gamely tries out the persona of wisdom-dispenser even though it neither suits her as a young person nor plays to her strengths as a writer (the construction of scenes of sexual or comedic discomfort), Heti does not come up with any clear answers. HSAPB? isn't the kind of self-help book whose protagonist gives you answers, but rather the kind whose protagonist asks questions, questions that get projected onto Sheila and Margaux's relationship and played out in that intense, Persona-like drama. Or not even that: it's clear that Sheila is making up much of the drama that takes place between her and Margaux. But not all – Margaux does say some weird things, like when she compares Sheila to a spider that she'll be forced to kill if it comes too close to her, but it's impossible to say, from the little we're given, how she actually sees their relationship. In the end we don't know much of anything at all: why Sheila has such an extraordinary reaction to Margaux; how Margaux sees and feels about Sheila; how Margaux is able to go back to painting after her Sheila-induced vision of herself as an evil Buddha, full of privilege and empty of empathy. But despite how little we know, the spectacle of their relationship is compelling.
One of the novelistic problems that HSAPB? seeks, awkwardly, to address, is how to depict contemporary life and the contemporary subject. That's always the problem of the novel, and it is never less than urgent. Our contemporary problems always seem shallow and trivial – for example, our concern that we seem, and may be, shallow and trivial. This is a particular concern in North America, which is surely one reason why Knausgaard and the equally prolific and trendy Italian novelist Elena Ferrante (who writes using a pseudonym but whose work some have hypothesized to be autobiographical) do not, overall, generate similar worries in critics; that, and we probably always look sillier to ourselves; and Knausgaard and Ferrante are writing domestic narratives, which, while not immune to charges of self-absorption (for those who prefer political fiction about world events, say), are less susceptible to them than a novel about a childless woman who earns money sweeping up hair in a salon, not because she couldn't get a better job but because she's either uninterested in or incapable of having one, if there's a difference, who spends most of her time worrying about the impression she makes on others and how to improve her blow jobs and doing drugs, and who's able to impulsively decide to move to New York City and then change her mind after a few days. Definitely, this is not what we want to think about when we think, with full gravitas, about “close attention to life as it is actually lived.”