Exiting the ‘Girlie’ Pigeonhole, Entering the Misogynist’s Mind

Everything You Know , by Zoë Heller. Alfred A. Knopf, 203 pages, $22.

This is a review of Zoë Heller’s new novel, Everything You Know , but it’s really much more about Bridget Jones, the fat-phobic heroine of Helen Fielding’s 1998 novel, Bridget Jones’s Diary , a book so wondrously smart and funny that it pretty much spoiled my appetite for new fiction-never very large to begin with-for a solid year and a half. It’s the first book I can actually remember rooting for, as if it were a sports figure; when it hit the best-seller list (without Oprah Winfrey’s help), I was actually whooping with glee.

As with any enormous success, Bridget Jones has her detractors, though I don’t pretend to understand them, and her imitators. The book was based on a fictional, confessional-style column that Ms. Fielding wrote for the London Independent and later for The Daily Telegraph . The fiction was good in the it’s-funny-because-it’s-true sense, and soon there were many confessional-style columns by women in the London papers, some fictional, some actually autobiographical. Which brings us to Ms. Heller, who wrote the latter style of column (her sex life, her Prozac, her guilty enjoyment of Monica Lewinsky) for the London Sunday Times until she quit, declaring that she was tired of being pigeonholed as a “girlie” writer. Now she has turned out Everything You Know , a novel that reads like the anti- Bridget Jones’s Diary .

Ms. Heller, unlike Ms. Fielding-who lives in Notting Hill and whose reputation, pre- Bridget Jones , was confined to Fleet Street-arrived in America in the early 90′s on the Tina Brown Mayflower, settling in Brooklyn and Bucks County, Pa. From there, Ms. Heller filed her dispatches to London as well as plummy profiles of actor Sylvester Stallone for Ms. Brown’s Vanity Fair and designer Marc Jacobs for Ms. Brown’s New Yorker (to cite the sampling offered in Knopf’s shiny press packet for Everything You Know -no girlie columns included). Ms. Heller’s celebrity interviews were not her only brush with filmdom; her father was a screenwriter ( What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? ), so too, is her brother and her boyfriend; and in her feckless youth she herself tried a screenplay, which she now dismisses along with the columns.

Everything You Know is clearly meant to raise her up out of the feminine froth she once paddled in and now publicly derides. Her novel is narrated, unreliably, by a 50-year-old man named Willy Muller: a germophobic, half-Jewish, half-German celebrity journalist-ghostwriter with heart trouble, a couple of unappealing girlfriends and a stack of dead female relatives. His wife, Oona, expired in 1971 after hitting her head on a refrigerator door-he may or may not have pushed her; his younger daughter, Sadie, committed suicide not long ago; and by book’s end his mother has been eliminated, too.

Willy wrote a self-exonerating tell-all about his marriage called To Have and to Hold that he is trying to turn into a screenplay (he occupies the seamy outskirts of celebrity, which Ms. Heller documents knowingly and well), but he has a significant distraction: Sadie’s sexually explicit diaries.

Interestingly enough, though Ms. Heller has protested about being forced to write in a young female voice by her newspaper editors-and her attempt to channel an older man is certainly admirable-Sadie’s diaries (“Am feeling v. v. depressed,” she writes, Bridget-style) are what keep Everything You Know from being merely a heavy-handed, less-than-wholly-convincing character study.

Willy pretty much loathes the entire world, but he reserves his most acid bile for the opposite sex. He hates it when “women get feisty and direct about stuff.” He hates women who cry. He hates nudist beaches-something about the “fried-egg stare of a woman’s naked torso” repels him. One girlfriend looks like a “rotting peach.” Another girl is a “lipsticked ferret”; yet another “fabulously desiccated … almost heroic in her hideousness.” And then there’s that “frizzy-haired gargoyle with varicose veins throbbing beneath her tan-colored stockings.” I’m not one of those people who thinks misogyny is antithetical to good literature-I often find myself defending the narrators of Martin Amis and John Updike novels-but one can be forgiven for suspecting that, in her strenuous attempt to underscore that she is not, repeat not , a girlie columnist, Ms. Heller has spread the misogyny a bit more thickly and crudely than necessary. (The novel is also heaped with excrement, phlegm, vomit and spit.) The problem is not that Willy is an unlikable character (Humbert Humbert, anyone?); the problem is that he’s an abjectly tedious character.

The author is in general a graceful prose stylist, but her taste for extravagant metaphor is not limited to descriptions of women. Mexican cockroaches are “ambulatory patent leather handbags”; the narrator’s stomach gazes up at him like “an affectionate haggis.” It is not political but esthetic offense that caused this reader’s gaze to wander longingly to the galley proof of the sequel to Bridget Jones’s Diary : Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason . The new book is not due in stores until Feb. 28, so it’s too soon to review it. (But reserve your copy now; it’s even better than the first one: It’s a hundred pages longer and feels a hundred pages shorter.)

Ms. Heller, whose Britishisms (“Tuh!”) seem to have been thrown into annoyingly sharper relief by her protracted stay in America and who is perhaps best at portraying what she calls “the grey drear of lumpen Englishness,” believes that the American fiction audience has a lamentable tendency to read only what resonates with them or amuses them. Everything You Know feels too much like it merely exists to thumb its nose, albeit with flights of skill, at that tendency. I am plumping, as she might say, for Ms. Fielding’s The Edge of Reason to be a big hit, and I will not complain if Ms. Heller’s book and its sorry protagonist fade into the darkness. Willy Muller was created by an author cosmetically quite unlike himself, but he’s still less daring a creation than Bridget Jones.

I find Ms. Heller’s dismissal of “girlie” writing specious. We are not so overwhelmed with female and feminine voices ringing untrammeled around the globe that we couldn’t stand to hear a few more. Good or bad writing is not determined by topic, but by execution.

And it seems Ms. Heller herself has not yet entirely abandoned the “girlie” genre; flipping through the January issue of Harper’s Bazaar , I noticed that she has penned an account of her post-pregnancy weight-loss quest. How very Bridget Jones.