Sunday, February 17, 2008

Girls I don't like

Don't worry. This isn't going to be a rant like that last one. This is actually about two books I just read. I've been reading odd books because I'm trying to weed things in our new place and I have a box of books that I've picked up here and there and I'm not sure if the books are worth keeping. So I'm making a point of pulling books out of that stack.

And thus I came to read Mary McCarthy's "The Company She Keeps." I have read nothing else by McCarthy, despite or perhaps because of her having written about VietNam. As she was or had once been a communist, she would have been forbidden (or as forbidden as my father got about books) in my house. All I really knew of her was that she famously said of Lillian Hellman, "every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'," because I did read a great deal of Hellman in high school (despite her communism) and did a monologue about her. (Sidebar: The film "Julia" with Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave--which would have been truly forbidden in my childhood home--is really quite awful, avoid it).

So I read TCSK. At first I wasn't sure it was a novel--it's six novellas or short stories, though loosely they are about or feature the same woman. In the first she is a young married woman who begins an affair out of boredom, it seems, and having broken her marriage then realizes she really doesn't want to marry the second young man. I disliked her horribly. I know women like this--who want to be engaged for the excitement and the fuss, but really don't want to be in the dull humdrum of marriage. Even worse is when they like the excitement of being pregnant--the showers and the being fussed over--only to realize that they will never again be the center of the universe once the child is born. It horrifies me and makes me a little sick. I almost stopped reading. The second section was so different in style--really just observing a boss she had who ran a somewhat shady antique shop--that I didn't realize that she was the same character and kept reading. Then she has an affair on a train, observes a certain type of society host (today we would recognize him as a possible queen, bitchy and controlling and yet somehow still drawing people in), is observed by another young married man with whom she has another brief affair, and finally, confesses all to her therapist.

The style very 30's/40's, could be Dorothy Parker except that the subject matter is too frank for Parker's short stories (not her life or poetry, just the short stories). It's a style I find engaging if stilted. I also recently read "The Maltese Falcon," which is nothing if not the language--my favorite being the way Hammett (Lillian Hellman's long-time and unfaithful lover) describes a character saying a two word sentence, the first word being a short imperative verb ending in "k' and the second being "you."

So after that, I read "A Certain Age," by Tama Janowitz. And it too, describes a young woman (although at 32, not so young--the certain age of the title) who drifts from affair to affair, her goal being to marry money, and lots of it. Nothing else is real or important except for that goal. She spends double what she makes--most of it on personal upkeep, and clothes to appear to be the kind of person who should marry money. Both women want marriage, and yet both women find themselves having passes made at them, and seem to accept the pass without much thought despite being repeatedly surprised by it!

I started it, put it down and then picked it up again, because I realized that it is merely a retelling of Wharton's "The House of Mirth," but while I felt deeply sorry for Lily Bart who must marry, I felt more and more angry at Florence who lives in a time when it is certainly not necessary for a woman to marry. And yet, on reflection, Lily need not marry either--she just cannot be single and live in the manner to which she is accustomed. And neither woman will settle for middle class. Both women turn down the deeply eligible, kind men in their lives because they will not be RICH. Fabulously and filthy rich. Both need to marry big money to pay off the debts they've incurred trying to marry money. Both find themselves accidently embroiled in others scandals and both find themselves taking drugs to forget and by the end of the novels are ruined. Lily is dead, perhaps accidently perhaps deliberately through an overdose of laudenum and Florence is homeless, locked out of her apt. and away from her things because of non-payment, wandering New York and yet still looking down on those who are trying to help her.

Here's what I think--these women should be smacked.

Ok, that's unkind. But I both do and do not understand these women. Sure I wanted, hoped and even sort of expected to marry money. But I didn't and I didn't pursue it. I expected to make my own money--which I also did not pursue, but that's another story. I spent more than I made in my 20's expecting to make the money to pay off my debts at some future time. Not so wise. I've bought silly things to make myself feel better--but $25-$50 worth of silly, not $500-$1000 worth of silly.

But the thing that I do not understand about these women, (well, not Lily--that would have been impossible for a Wharton heroine) is the way they fall into bed and then wonder why they don't like themselves much. Is the lack of self-esteem why they accept the cheap passes? Or do the cheap passes and their acceptance lower the self-esteem? Each time they seem surprised.

Maybe I don't understand because I've never had passes made at me. At least I don't think I have. Sometimes I wonder about this, because I am not considered unattractive. I laugh with the guys, but I'm not a Smith girl (if you know what I mean). And then I wonder if passes have been made and I have simply slipped right past them--unaware of the intent...

Anyway--I just don't get it, any more than I get or like the women on "Sex in the City." That's not a way of behaving that I have ever been engaged in. But I have known a few women like this.

I have a friend/aquaintance who reminds me of these women--more the McCarthy than the Janowitz, because she wasn't in it for the money--she had the noble cause of being poor for theater, but she did seem to drift in and out of a lot of beds. Every time declaring that she had opened herself up for love. In a horrible Dr. Phil kind of way, I could have told her that she opened herself up for excitement and for passion, but not really for love.

I can't seem to find it now, but Mirror's wife was in a play last year called "sic" and I think I posted about it, and it had the best lines about how I feel about this person:

"Well, I like her
Or I want to like her
Because other people I like like her
But the truth is
I don't like her...
But then I think Why don't I like her
Do I not like her because I think she doesn't like me...
or do I not like her because I can't relate to her intellectually
But if I can't relate to her intellectually is that because
she's smarter or Stupider OR are we in fact such
intellectual equals
that we can't recognize the intelligence of the other so
blinded are we by the relection of comparable thought
But frankly...
I don't think that's it
and anyway the larger quesiton is
Why Do I Want To Like Her...
and I have to say that I don't think I actually have Any
Interest in liking her
I Just Want Her To Like Me...
and and
of course the truly haunting aspect of all of this is that
All Of The People I Like Like Her...
At The Same Time As They Like Me
so so
Where does the true affection lie ...

I will probably keep the McCarthy and give away the Janowitz. Solely because the McCarthy is a classic and the Janowitz isn't. In truth, I should give them both away.

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