Thursday, March 22, 2007

Lured in at last

There's always a book or two I have to look at every time I'm in a bookstore. It's not always because they look like they'd be good either. Often, they don't. Citizen Girl, by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, was one such book. Now that I've read it, I'll never feel that way again.

This book chronicles the post-collegiate adventures of Girl (yes, that's her name, although she occasionally goes by "G"). G, as I came to think of her, had the potential to be an interesting character. Her mother was the director of a writer's colony, and she majored in public policy at Wesleyan, with a minor in gender studies. This should make her interesting. Unfortunately, it doesn't.

When we first meet G, she's employed as an admin at a women's center run by a well-known feminist who turns out to be a total bitch. She gets fired and lands in the for-profit world, heading up a feminist marketing initiative for My Company, an internet start-up run by an asshole named Guy (OMG...Girl, Guy, My Company...OMG, it's like they read my diary!!!) In addition to heading up this initiative, she is also searching for a women's non-profit for the company to donate money to. However, all is not as it seems at My Company, and G quickly becomes disillusioned.

Let me get this out of the way: I hated G. There's no real sense of character there. She reacts to events without seeming to have any personality or direction at all. This is a flaw of the entire book, actually -- although it's densely populated, you would know none of the characters if you met them on the street. It utterly failed my Great Gatsby test (F. Scott Fitzgerald's editor told him that he'd know the character of Tom if he met him on the street and would know to avoid him.) If the authors had written in third person, it'd be more forgiveable, but this is (as I called them in second grade) an "I" book. Which brings me to my second point about G: we get to know every snide and snotty thought in her pompous little head. What little character she has is not likeable at all. You don't root for her.

G is meant to be a feminist, but really seems like anything but. She routinely rips other women apart based on what they're wearing and how their hair is. Everyone is either too plastic or too frumpy for her, and on the extremely rare occasion another woman actually impresses her with her appearance, she inevitably makes a fool of herself in front of her, and holds that woman up as a goddess, whether she deserves it or not. G's feminism manifests itself in tiresome ways: a refusal to dye her hair blonde (caramel is the lightest G can go without compromising her principles), an outrage over the casual use of the word "cunt" by a stranger at a hockey game (who was talking about the game, not about a man or a woman), her horror over learning that men's dinner clubs still exist (yes, let's focus on the important issues here!).

The exploitation of women is a leitmotif in this book: G goes on a date with a guy who takes her to a 20s-style burlesque review; she rents an apartment from a guy who used to shoot porn movies there; she walks in on her boyfriend watching porn during a bachelor party (which she shows up at unannounced). Late in the book, My Company is entering into a partnership with a lingerie company called Bovary, headed by a woman named Kat and backed financially by her girlfriend. G winds up in the middle of this deal and is given free underwear and taken to a club called Muffin (obviously modeled on the Pussycat Dolls shows) by Kat. You're supposed to get outraged every time, as G does, I guess.

But nothing productive ever comes out of G's outrage. I finished The Road to Coorain right before I started this one, and Jill Ker Conway let her belief in women's equality drive her career and take her all the way to the top. By contrast, G's feminism simply holds her back. Rather than stand behind her beliefs, she hides behind them. Despite the numerous opportunities for growth throughout the book, she fails to profit from any of them. You would think that if you'd been told bluntly by two bosses that you're too needy and don't take direction well, you would at least give it some thought. She dismisses the criticisms out of hand. She seems destined to become one of those feminist caricatures 10 years down the road, who bitches about sexist Lysol commercials and corrects generic use of the male pronoun.

She could've been more. She could've gone to law school or gotten her MSW and really helped women. She could've gone for her PhD and helped to shape new schools of thought on feminism. She could've done an internship in the legislative branch and used the connections she made there to work in government with a politician she believed in. But all of that would've required some actual work. And no Nanette Lepore dress like her heart desires (this is what passes for character development in this book, I guess).

Despite all this, the book is oddly compelling. Like a reality-TV marathon, you know it sucks, but you can't look away. The ending, however, completely destroys any sense of fun the book had. I will not spoil it in case anyone still wants to read this book after all this, but I will just say that I kept waiting for her to wake up during it. Except she doesn't. It's supposed to have really happened, and I don't believe it one bit. I don't think, after all this, that I have the stomach for The Nanny Diaries, Kraus and McLaughlin's other ouvre. If anyone out there has read it, let me know if it's as sickening as Citizen Girl.


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Stella said...

Phew, I thought it was just me! I agree wholeheartedly with everything you said about Citizen Girl. The Nanny Diaries shares that same car accident feel - you just can't look away. 'Nanny' could be 'Girl' a year earlier. No personality, or at least no redeeming qualities. I see you wrote this post months ago, so I hope you haven't put yourself through this torture by now!