My Date With Satan , by Stacey Richter. Scribner, 223 pages, $22.
The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club , by Julia Slavin. Henry Holt, 194 pages, $22.
Hullabaloo permitting, what is the New Girl Order all about? According to Marcelle Karp and Debbie Stoller, founders of the girl ‘zine Bust , it’s “raw and real, straightforward and sarcastic, smart and silly, and liberally sprinkled with references to our own Girl culture–that shared set of female experiences that includes Barbies and blow jobs, sexism and shoplifting, Vogue and vaginas.” Alliteration and consumerism aside, their forthcoming Guide to the New Girl Order is a great read if you like hyperbole, sex and polemics. But even if the New Girl Order is more pathology than philosophy, we can work with it.
The recent success of Bridget Jones’s Diary and The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing have helped the publishing industry discover hipster female purchasing power, so we all have lots of bawdy funny novels to read on the beach this summer. And now something better has skimmed in on the tide: two really good first books by 30-something girl writers Stacey Richter and Julia Slavin. Considering the spate of media attention to fiction from the fair side, it’s well nigh obligatory to locate these two in the spectrum. Infused with sex, drugs, suburbia, sarcasm, accessorized with blurbs from the ubiquitous Rick Moody, My Date With Satan and The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club belong, wonder of wonders, in the dusty old category of literature. Which leads me ’round to the opinion that feminism hasn’t merely brought us “past the point where we have to prove we’re worthy by taking ourselves seriously … the point where we can make fun of our weight,” as Kate Christensen, author of In the Drink trumpeted in New York magazine. Maybe we’ve made it to the point where women can just be, ahem … writers, with all the province and impunity that category may entail.
Following the experimental tradition of Donald Barthelme, Italo Calvino et al., rather than the Raymond Carver-style realism that has so influenced the last two decades of American short fiction, Ms. Slavin and Ms. Richter bypass domesticity and romance; they launch broader investigations. It’s not all about, or even mostly about, gender. If these two books send a larger social message, it’s embedded in perfectly detailed and riotous absurdism, or fantasy. Not to worry: Their innovations are utterly readable, at home in non-esoteric magazines like GQ and Seventeen , acceptable to the prize-giving authorities (Ms. Richter has racked up two Pushcart Prizes, Ms. Slavin a Pushcart and the GQ Frederick Exley Fiction prize). Though The New Yorker didn’t see fit to include them in the issue devoted to “writers for the 21st century” (so Bill Buford is still a sucker for the bad boy), bad girls Stacey Richter and Julia Slavin are present and accounted for as we blunder into the next millennium.
High inventiveness is the key to both collections. If you’re a stickler for believability, look elsewhere. Ms. Slavin’s stories operate predominantly from the realm of the unreal. She takes a preposterous premise and weaves it into an oddly resonant tale: A lonely housewife swallows the boy who mows the lawn; a man is stalked by his childhood security blanket; a woman grows teeth all over her body; and a man whose promiscuous lover is pining for her husband starts losing chunks of his body. Ms. Richter’s collection, the more beautifully sprawling and hallucinogenic of the two, features a carnival cast of characters: a bratty suburbanite stranded on a desert island with a colony of male models who’ve never seen a woman; a dog who gains worldwide acclaim for her sculptures and performance art; a peripatetic, mutilated leg in love with a boozy deadbeat.
Think Gogol, where a vanished nose sets off a satire about social rank. In Ms. Richter’s “The Beauty Treatment,” an upper-class teenager who is being groomed for a good marriage to a Jewish doctor is attacked and mutilated by her best friend, who is cultivating an inner-city hip-hop persona; both girls are sent to therapy to work out their anger. The flailing search for identity in a homogenous middle-American consumer culture is one way to read the story. In “The First Men,” also by Ms. Richter, a drug-addicted school teacher about to get whacked by the eighth-grade goodfella to whom she owes money, lets loose with this rant: “I go to the Ladies’ Lounge and vomit then proceed to Lingerie to buy a couple of push-up bras on credit. Look, it isn’t my fault that Teddy drinks too much, okay? I just want to say that. EVERYBODY ACTS LIKE EVERYTHING IS MY FAULT AND IT ISN’T MY FAULT. I hate it, hate it, hate it. And I wanted that perfume, that’s why I lifted it. What do you want me to say? That it’s a disease? I have news for you, baby. Greed is not a disease.” Unpack this passage to find a rather majestic invective against typical girlie themes: eating disorders, shopping and shoplifting, dysfunctional relationships, and the privileging of victimhood. At the same time, as we watch her hurtle her hostile way deeper into trouble, we get what we really need from an unreliable first-person narrator–insight into the character’s self-delusion, pathos and tragedy. This is efficient writing–tight and aggressive, the way a short story should be.
Ms. Slavin’s prose delivers smoothly, too; she sets up her stories with straightforward ease, as though she were describing yesterday’s lunch. “Covered” begins, “My mother said that as a boy I was never without my old blanket: I slept with it, ate with it, and dragged it along behind me like an animal on a leash. That was our last coherent conversation. Soon after, she became anxious and confused, at times mistaking me for my dead father and then not recognizing me at all.”
Despite, or in spite of, pervasive malaise and anxiety, the characters in both Ms. Richter’s and Ms. Slavin’s stories seem to retrieve in the end a certain peace–even if it’s only based on delusion. No epiphanies here, no lightning bolts of comprehension, no tidy narrative denouement. These stories are a kind of working through, a riding of the misery. Consider, for example, the anti-Zeitgeist finale of “Beauty and Rudy,” Ms. Slavin’s intriguing story about a drug- and new-age-infested post-lapsarian Eden: “Dang, that woman gets mad faster than any woman I’ve ever seen, Rudy thought, as he walked into the warm sunshine looking for his favorite goat. Must be the macrobiotic diet she put herself on. ‘Seen Timmy?’ he asked a steer. The steer tilted his head in the direction of the sugar house. Come to think of it, the whole last millennium together had been a bitch.”
Fantastic, but not perfect. It’s the risk with premise-driven fiction, and it’s a characteristic of collections: There are always a couple of flops, one-gag stories that never
really get off the ground. “Rules for Being Human,” about a bar where the living dead congregate and emote about life, and “The Ocean,” in which a washed-up child celebrity waffles back through his life looking for redemption, are the weak interludes in Ms. Richter’s book. Ms. Slavin’s “Dentaphila” and “He Came Apart,” two extended metaphors about difficult relationships, both misfire: The grotesque premise is more distressing (or just plain yucky) than touching. Ambitious work sometimes takes a dive.
These are punky, hilarious, provocative books. Sobriety is not the mood they conjure, and yet the urge to defend them as the more substantive cull from among the summer’s crop certainly tempts all sorts of sober argument. Here one could indulge in grandiloquent pronouncements about the responsibility of literature, the scope of social commentary and the effective use of the surreal. But come to think of it, this whole last millennium’s been a bitch. You go, girl.