Radical Sanity: Commonsense Advice for Uncommon Women , by Elizabeth Wurtzel. AtRandom.com, 85 pages, $15.
All of us have times when we feel the need of sage advice, of that steadying hand gently guiding us toward the light at the end of the tunnel. My own dark several years of the soul spanned my early 20’s, when I’d lived long enough to make all the wrong major decisions but not quite long enough to imagine alternatives, or escape routes. There was no one I could turn to, for-thanks to another giant mistake-I was living in Cambridge, Mass., a community which, with rare exceptions, seemed notably lacking in that sexy, inspirational joie de vivre you want in a personal consiglière, therapist or guru.
So I did what any rational person would: I consulted the I Ching. Forget all that time-consuming hoodoo with the yarrow stalks! My case was an emergency! I tossed the coins so obsessively that I could usually buy lunch with divinatory pennies retrieved from the crevices of my couch. And what did I get, exactly? Metaphors, poetry, a soothing dose of Confucian philosophy. How unsatisfactory: The last thing in the world I needed to hear was that perseverance furthers!
But that was another era: Before Elizabeth Wurtzel. Alas, I was born too early to avail myself (either in hard copy or in e-book form) of the breezy counsel Ms. Wurtzel dispenses in Radical Sanity. This slim volume of “commonsense advice for uncommon women” is divided into brief sections, each titled with a crisp directive: “Have Pets” and “Think Productively.” Topics range from the practical (“Travel Light”) to the metaphysical (“When All Else Fails, Talk to God”), from the sensible (“Enjoy Your Single Years”) to the suspect (“The Only Way to Get One Person Off Your Mind Is To Get Another One On Your Body”). And each chapter is headed with an inspirational quote culled from a list of sources sufficiently ecumenical to embrace Ecclesiastes and Alanis Morissette.
As most established religions, televangelists and self-help swamis know, telling people how to live is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel: Offer enough advice, and sooner or later you’re bound to come up with something useful. A few of Ms. Wurtzel’s suggestions and warnings will brighten her readers’ moods-and keep them out of trouble. I second her opinion about braving the open seas with strangers: “Don’t get on a sailboat with people you don’t know all that well, lest you find yourself stuck in someone else’s nautical fantasy.” And some of her instructions for attitude adjustment will hearten the anxious and lovelorn: “Every time you find yourself wondering how he feels about you, if he likes you, if he loves you, if he wants you desperately, try instead to start asking yourself how you feel about him.”
But a good deal of what she says seems, well, not completely thought through. The quasi-Buddhist ruminations in the “Do Nothing” chapter (“Doing nothing is the opposite of, say, shagging some guy so that you can stop thinking about some other guy”) will hardly serve as a substitute for that private audience with the Dalai Lama. As a small, symbolic offensive in the gender war, refusing to clear the table unless the male guests help may sound like a good idea. (“Do you want to know how you can change the world, one dinner table at a time? … Stay in your chair, savor a few more sips of your Merlot … and simply refuse to participate in a process that maintains the status quo of women serving men.”) But the probable result of the dinner-party “sit-in” is that your hostess will wind up bussing all the dishes after the guests have gone home.
In any case, this surge of feminist feistiness seems faintly disingenuous when so much of Radical Sanity seems aimed at achieving the ultimate goal of snagging male approval. I want to believe that Ms. Wurtzel is correct in claiming that guys prefer women who tuck into hefty slices of banana cream pie. (“Men, by the way, find this trait very attractive, in contrast to vomitatious eating disorders, which no one finds appealing.”) But I’m pretty sure she’s wrong in mapping the way to a man’s heart via a detour through the Balkans: “If, at a dinner party, you can very quietly explain to some vulgar, outspoken man exactly why he has not a clue about what is going on in the Balkan states … all the men at the table will be completely besotted with you.” And it’s simply depressing to be urged to get a pet because “men in particular, but people in general, think a woman who can handle a dog is pretty damn cool.”
You start to sense where all this is heading, despite the wacky mini-disquisition on the history of feminism: “Here is how feminism got its start: There were many bright and bored women living in suburbs, playing mah jongg to pass the time … many of them went crazy and got addicted to Valium and Librium, and some of them joined up with the nascent women’s movement …. Feminism saved these women’s lives.” Follow Ms. Wurtzel’s essentially conservative program and-after a few years of enjoying the single life and outgrowing “your little-girl days of being a whiny, needy pain in the ass”-you’ll pretty quickly find yourself back at the mah-jongg table. “There are exceptions to this rule, but I have never met any of them. Most of us need the conventions of coupledom, family, and stability to be happy.” But don’t despair: “Coupledom” need not confine us to the prison of suburbia. A different sort of middle-class life can be ours if we are brave enough to demand it: “We can stay in the city, and raise kids who are urban and urbane, who think chewing gum is bovine and disgusting, who enjoy Saturday afternoons at Cubism exhibits and evenings at art-house cinemas.”
In one of the book’s more chilling moments, Ms. Wurtzel reminds her hapless readers: “If you are doing something worthy with your life, like helping to end hunger in the Sudan or trying to resettle ethnic Albanians, you are probably not reading this book.”
This sounds like the voice of her unruly id, drowning out all that big-sisterly advice, telling us what she really and truly thinks of the “uncommon women” desperate enough to buy what she’s purveying. In fact, your heart goes out to young women so in need of assurance and direction that they’re willing to seek spiritual guidance from the author of Prozac Nation and Bitch-from a writer who pays lip service to feminist ideals while promoting the sorts of “conventions” designed to produce the perfect woman, the new-model Stepford wife, for the Dubya years.
Francine Prose is the author of Blue Angel (HarperCollins).