Monday, February 13, 2012

"Blueprints" an Explosive Portrait of Post-feminist Girls

The first story of Elissa Schappell’s collection Blueprints for Building Better Girls explodes off the pages. The vulnerability, sadness, cruelty and idiocy are like brutal scratches and the familiarity of the emotions like salt on a wound.

Heather has a bad reputation. Slut is shouted more than whispered as she walks through the halls of her high school. Ross is haunted by his recent past as the fat kid. The one in the pool with a long shirt, the one shoved into lockers, his books catapulted toward the floor. They find each other and it is a first exchange of intimacy and surrender. They are broken fledglings and their desperate search for solace is heartbreaking and destructive. “I couldn’t figure out why Ross, after taking such good care of that car, polishing each sleek curve, never seemed to clean outside,” thinks Heather, illuminating the way that all of Ross’s workouts and diets have shaved off the pounds but not smoothed whatever is inside him.

Schappell’s stories are linked by incidental crossovers between characters and my mind hopped around a bit trying to remember where Jenny had appeared before and what I knew about her. I’ve begun to tire of the six degrees of separation approach in short story collections, but Schapell’s overlaps bothered me less than some.

Joy of Cooking was good enough to make me pause. I have a tendency to react violently to narratives of eating disorders. Too often they are so wrong it feels like an insult. Schappell is at her strongest when she is writing in the first person and this is the best way to inhabit the pain of Emily’s mother. Twelve was the beginning of her daughter’s anorexia. Sit-ups, calorie counting, 74 pounds. The story hurts. The disease is an awful game where the winner dies, and this insidious disease is everywhere. Joy of Cooking harrowingly reminds us of the ripple effect, the way the obsession with food scuttles relationships and devastates multiple lives. “No one saw how much the mother hurt,” Schappell writes. “No one knew, or cared, what she’d lost.”

Schappell examines more than a few marriages, probing at the eventuality of children. She illuminates the polarizing feeling of absolute love and devotion paired with a distinct, if temporary, loss of self.

Sex itself is a vital thread in this narrative of girls and women. Unfortunately, every instance of sex in these pages is laced with ulterior motives, a promise or a deprivation. A woman bears three children to her husband and he stops sleeping with her. Another can't bear children and is similarly rejected. The anorexic is so uncomfortable in her body she can’t be touched, and a college girl tries to erase herself through degrading, semi-conscious encounters. Sex is not a success for these women, which I found upsetting and unfair. When will women, even in the confines of fiction, be permitted to pursue their sexual impulses without damning results?

I spent a lot of time thinking about these women’s relationship to sex afterward. Wanted, denied, unwanted, degraded, feared. Ultimately I think Schappell wouldn’t let sex be easy for her characters. Maybe she thinks it isn’t easy, or maybe she thinks it shouldn’t be, and maybe she’s right. But I can’t help hoping for stories about women who ask for what they desire and get it, without strings, without damage. How many times have we explained the foibles of men as boys being boys? When Heather’s son explains away a girl’s slip-up in a similar manner, her reply is devastating: “Don’t be a fool, there is no such thing as just a girl.”

Schappell unveils the frigid contours of post-feminist blueprints. The ability to have it all was somewhere confused with a directive. And as anyone knows, who has tried to be the good daughter, the temptress, and the measured prude, you simply can’t be everyone you’re expected to be.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, post-feminism is a lie, anyway :D.

    I think desirability breeds social power and inclusion for some ladies. That's attractuve in itself. But sex isn't going to be fun at all unless it's pursued soley for the joy of it.

    I don't know what feminine power is anymore.