Her Slow-Motion Awakening: Kept Woman Breaks Free at Last Because She Is Beautiful , by Cameron Dougan. AtRandom.com, 319 pages, e-book $9.95; paperback $19.
Cameron Dougan set himself a daunting task when he put at the center of his first novel a gorgeous kept woman who runs around Manhattan trailing clouds of perfume from Bloomie’s. It’s not impossible to pull off, of course: Truman Capote did just fine with Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but Capote’s tone is brisk and campy, which leavens things when Holly Golightly’s fate darkens and our sympathies are summoned. But Kim Reilly, Mr. Dougan’s heroine in Because She Is Beautiful, is Holly Goheavily from the get-go.
We are never allowed the readerly room to be playful or ironic about Kim Reilly. As she gets her heels buffed or has models parade the latest designer clothes before her, Mr. Dougan keeps to a passionately dignified tone, and we are meant to sense Kim’s moral struggle and her desire to grow past her violent, death-plagued beginnings. The general emotional register throughout is straight-faced, sincere and finally-philosophically-sad. Kim’s first moneybags lover introduces himself by taking hold of her hands and declaring, “Sad … Darling, I can tell. They’re fragile and need looking after. Are these sad hands?” Why yes, yes they are, and not just the hands. Later, a friend of hers tells her, “Some people die without ever knowing tragedy …. Others pass their lives in catastrophe’s shadows. Yet we live in the same world ….You and I …. We live in the shadows.”
Sad, if you haven’t noticed, is pretty big with lots of our younger novelists. It’s a post-everything, neo-romantic, free-floating melancholy, issuing as much from the new generation’s distanced, mediated sense of the unfairness of things (not Growing Up Absurd, but Growing Up “Absurd”) as it does from that old emotional workhorse of artists everywhere, the narcissistic wound. It also helps that it’s a short, stubby word any 2-year-old can say, thus connecting it, subconsciously at least, with the vulnerabilities and possibilities of innocence. Study the key moments in Douglas Coupland, the sentiment beneath the sickness in Bret Easton Ellis, the entire oeuvre of Jay McInerney, and even David Foster Wallace in those brief moments when he wearies of the infinite complexity of everything and succumbs, in relief, to wholesale reductionism-for them, life is sad and life is lonely, and to say so, beautifully and sadly, is one of fiction’s great responsibilities.
There’s a pedigree for this. The most edifying forebear, in the case of Cameron Dougan, is F. Scott Fitzgerald and all his Sad Young Men-edifying because Mr. Dougan shares with Fitzgerald an earnest moralism (the direct issue of a certain attenuated and nostalgic Irish Catholicism), as well as a fascination with the trappings of the rich. If only Mr. Dougan possessed Fitzgerald’s gimlet eye, if only he could see how the mess the very, very moneyed can make of things is not so much swooningly poignant as carelessly wasteful.
Because She Is Beautiful begins with 40 pages of Kim’s girlhood as a military brat, and Mr. Dougan works valiantly through them, the travails of families moving from base to base and the alcohol-laden domestic battles between Mom and Dad being not exactly the author’s cup of tea. He makes his point, though: Kim grows up vowing never to allow herself to be abused, as her mother did, and to marry rich. After her mother dies, she escapes home and father by becoming a stewardess. To Mr. Dougan’s evident relief, Kim finally comes in contact with the world of financially solvent men.
Mr. Dougan’s descriptive prowess expands noticeably here. Whereas in the first section, he manages to set a number of pages in West Germany without a single detail to remind us that we’re in Europe, now he lays on the splendor of Upper East Side restaurants, hotels and charity balls with confidence and relish. This is the world to which the man who admired Kim’s sad, fragile hands introduces her, and which puts her in the sights of a more sophisticated chap named Robert Sanders, who is the George Peppard of the piece. (I’m not thinking of Breakfast at Tiffany’s now so much as late, TV-movie Peppard, all those mild, suave, white-haired art appreciators who were forever having waiters decant the wine-cf. the 1979 edition in Torn Between Two Lovers). Robert Sanders falls head over heels in love with Kim’s beauty and goodness, pays for her apartment, sets up a trust fund and bottomless credit at Bergdorf’s, and we’re treated to Pretty Woman–ish scenes of Kim trying on clothes, learning to say “It’s a gorgeous linen, but not for dinner” as Robert looks on Pygmalionishly (“his eyes would sparkle”), and whisking off, via helicopter, to exclusive restaurants, where she is greeted upon her arrival by the “Bravos!” of complete strangers. (Why are they applauding? Evidently because she’s bagged a sugar daddy with a helicopter.) She also befriends a, yes, gay interior decorator named Michael who supplies the novel with bitchy one-liners and sad lover stories, and satisfies the seemingly unquenchable thirst in recent books, movies and TV for a Supporting Fag.
It’s all quite glittery and exciting, but Mr. Dougan never lets us forget that Kim is vaguely displeased with the decision she’s made to, well, prostitute herself, and so we wait for her to realize that it’s not really a good idea to prostitute yourself out if you ever want to grow up.
The waiting takes about 200 pages. That’s a long time-several days worth of reading, say, and more than 15 years of narrative time. While we wait, Kim gets older, more bejeweled and sophisticated. She endures, with nearly saintly patience, Robert’s family problems: He’s married, of course, to a woman he can’t leave, a suicidal alcoholic who times her crises so that they always seem to occur on the night of Kim’s birthday party. We also have plenty of time to notice that, for all the plot schmaltz, Mr. Dougan’s sentences are quite precise and shapely, and occasionally bloom into the restrained fervor that characterizes a book like Tender Is the Night. His dialogue is interestingly dense, with several strands of conversation usually going on at once and people talking past and across rather than to one another. He’s also particularly good at leaving scenes open-ended, emotionally ambiguous, “neutral.”
If only Mr. Dougan applied his A-list prose to something other than B-movie material. On her way to enlightenment, Kim starts volunteering in a hospital ward for sick babies and ultimately takes off, alone, for Paris, where she spends entirely too much time shopping and hitting on a young artist-“Kim, stop shopping and hitting on young artists,” readers will cry, “and confront the meaning of your freedom!”-before she confronts the meaning of her freedom. When she does, it is sad, it is beautiful and it is bogus. The novel’s title comes from one of those light-as-air love lyrics by E.E. Cummings, but all I could think of after reading this was that Cameron Dougan has cut Kim Reilly an awful lot of slack, not because her character’s complex or her story interesting, but because he is enchanted-because she is beautiful. It’s an enchantment most readers will be unlikely to share.
Cornel Bonca is books editor for OC Weekly and teaches literature at California State University, Fullerton.