Monday, November 06, 2006

40. The Anxiety of Everyday Objects

by Aurelie Sheehan

I first learned about The Anxiety of Everyday Objects through an issue of Bitch wherein the article’s author discusses the evolution of chick lit. To some extent I think that chick lit is a really unfortunate genre because it allows for a proliferation of women to write about incredibly stupid and insipid things like clothes and shoes and men and do it in a really uninspiring way. Now, these things don’t have to be stupid and insipid nor do they have to be uninspiring, but publishers have realized that women will buy anything that features shoes on a cover and a pink spine, regardless of how poorly written it is. It’s like the literary equivalent of a Meg Ryan or Reese Witherspoon romantic comedy.

That’s not meant to be an insult to either of these actresses, because both have done some great movies, but they’ve also done some very fluffy ones. The unfortunate thing about chick lit is that, now, pretty much any book written for women and by women is labeled and cast off as chick lit and thus unworthy. What the Bitch article talks about is how, maybem chick lit isn’t as bad as we’ve made it out to be because as a result it’s opened up a path for women authors that, no matter how talented they are, may not have gotten a chance otherwise. The Anxiety of Everyday Objects is mentioned as one of these books.

Anxiety is Winona Bartlett’s story. She’s got an MFA in film but works as a secretary in a law firm. She does her job well and fits in at the firm, but it’s not her dream. It’s just a way to pay her bills: “Everyone has to make a living, even fledgling filmmakers. Is there one kind of job that’s better than another?” she asks, in defense of her choice. Sandy Spires is a new lawyer at the firm; confident, intelligent, impeccably dressed, and, most impressive to Winona, blind, Sandy acts a source of fascination for Winona. She’s able to handle the male lawyers with ease and commands an air of importance and intrigue wherever she goes. Owing to Sandy, Winona finds herself promoted to office manager, much to the dismay of the former office manager whose job description gets demoted, and more involved in her job than ever. Her love life, though, is unstable as she breaks up with Jeremy the Sincere, rebuffs the advances of her perfectly nice colleague Rex, and finds herself literally tied up with on-again/off-again William.

Overall, I really liked Anxiety. I have a couple criticisms, which I’ll get to in a minute, but I read a fair amount of “serious” books, you know? Sometimes I just want a light read, something refreshing and palate cleansing that doesn’t make me think too much. Something delightfully entertaining. The problem with most chick lit is that what these authors often take for refreshing and entertaining actually ends up trite and insulting. Unlike the heroines of Jane Green novels or the ditzy Becky Bloomwood of Shopaholic fame, Winona is actually a realistic portrait of an intelligent, thinking woman trying to figure out who she is and how her job defines her. Winona’s plight is, trust me, very near and dear to my heart so it’s refreshing indeed to see a “chick lit” author treat this with some heft. Winona isn’t troubled by which pair of Manolo stilettos she’s going to wear that day – she’s troubled by the fact that it’s up to her to fire the receptionist for being late. And when she does engage in some flirtations with Rex, her actions have some very real consequences.

What I didn’t like about the book was how it ended. After learning that Sandy’s motive for being in the law firm isn’t as straightforward as she’s led everyone to believe, Winona ends up leaving her job on her own terms and that’s how it ends. One can guess that she starts things up with Rex, but I take issue with the fact that this is supposed to be some sort of happy ending. Winona feels stuck in a job that’s nowhere near her dream and her happy ending is that she learns she’s strong enough to leave it behind. Okay…what happens after that? Quitting your job is a nice thing to think about, but it loses its shininess once you also think about how you’re going to pay your rent and bills. I’m guessing Winona still had student loan debt following her, so I would have liked to see her a little more troubled. Not that there isn’t something to be said for realizing when it’s time to leave a job that’s sucking your soul dry and feeling a huge sense of relief afterwards, but it’s not a nice, tied with string and a bow kind of happiness. The story doesn’t end there.

(I also take issue with the token black woman – the receptionist – whose son Aurelie Sheehan names “Denzel” of all ridiculous things. She also lives in Harlem. Because all black people in New York live in Harlem and give their children silly names. If you’re going to introduce a non-white character into your otherwise lily white cast, try at least not to make them a total racial caricature. I’m just saying.)

You probably wouldn’t think “chick lit” if you were to come across Anxiety in the bookstore. There’s a woman on the cover, but no martinis or disembodied feet in stilettos or any pink to speak of. “Would a major publishing house have taken a chance on this novel if there weren’t already a market for stories about young women living and working and falling in love in the city – that is, if there weren’t chick lit?” Jessica Jernigan poses the question in Bitch and I have to admit, she has a point there. I still think most chick lit is moronic, but if it paves the way for more thought-provoking work, can I really condemn it? I guess not.

Don’t think you’ll ever catch me on El with one of those pink-spined things, though.

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