My Heart Is a Chainsaw is a magnificently chaotic ode to slasher, one that demonstrates an unparalleled knowledge of the genre, its logic & tropes. I saw quite a lot of reviews describing this as a slow burner, and sì, in some ways Stephen Graham Jones withholds a lot of the chaos & gore for the finale however, Jade’s antics and internal monologue are very much adrenaline-fueled, so much so that I struggled to keep with up with her. Jade’s awareness of and excitement at being in a slasher gives the narrative a strong meta angle, one that results in a surprisingly playful tone, one that belies the gruesome nature of these killings.
Jade Daniels, a teenage girl of Blackfoot descent who lives in Proofrock, Idaho, is in her senior year of high school but has no real plans or aspirations besides obsessing over slashers. She’s the town’s resident loner goth, who lives with her dad, an abusive alcoholic. Jade is angry: at her ne’er-do-well dad, at his friend(s), for being creeps, at authority figures, who don’t really listen to her, at her mum, for bailing on her, and almost everyone & everything Proofrock-related. The only things keeping her going are slashers, and she dedicates her every waking moment to them, to the point that her recollections of their plots, characters, and tropes, become an inextricable part of who she is. Jade has no friends to speak of and is regarded by most of the townspeople as being a bit of a joke and a total ‘weirdo’. The only people who keep an eye out for her are her history teacher, Mr Holmes, and Sheriff Hardy. Jade spends most of her time lurking in the shadows, dying her hair emo colours, creeping around Indian Lake and Camp Blood, the town’s local haunts.
When some magnates from out of town begin developing a piece of land across the lake, Jade senses a change and is proven correct when a body count begins…what’s more, the daughter of one of these uber-wealthy developers, would make the perfect final girl. Jade knows that a slasher cycle is about to begin. Rather than being alarmed by the realization that her reality is now that of a slasher, Jade is freaking excited. She has no plans to stop the slasher but wants to see the story unfold, so she does a lot more lurking about, hoping to figure out the identity of the slasher and witness the slasher cycle from up close. Her obsession with Letha does lead her to reach out to her, but her ‘you are a final girl’ prep talk doesn’t go down well. As I said, Jade’s exhilarated inner monologue is hard to keep up with, however, I was also so taken by her that I was more than happy to follow in her chaotic steps. Jade makes full use of her encyclopaedic knowledge of the slasher (sub)genre, and provides a myriad of references and asides that link what is happening in her town to existing slasher flicks, comparing the slasher’s modus operandi, speculating about their identity and their next victims. Meanwhile Mr Holmes, Sheriff Hardy, and Letha are quite concerned about her and despite the brutal deaths that are happening don’t believe Jade’s slasher theory. Things of course escalate, and Jade finds herself in the middle of a blood bath…
The plot is very much heavy on Jade’s internal, and often inchoate, musings and ramblings about slashers. Having spent most of her life venerating slashers, and hating everything and everyone around her, she’s positively thrilled by the prospect of a slasher going on a killing spree in Proofrock. Sure, her eagerness at other people’s violent and bloody deaths certainly raises a few questions, and people like Letha & co believe that her obsession with slashers and her conviction that a slasher is responsible for the deaths and freaky occurrences that are happening in Proofrock is just a deflection…while they are not wrong Jade isn’t ready to go there, throwing herself into her analysis of ‘her’ slasher.
There were so many elements that I loved in this novel. Despite my almost perpetual confusion at Jade’s references (I went through a horror movie phase aeons ago but have grown out of it since and never really delved into the slasher subgenre) and the breakneck speed of her internal monologue, I was utterly engrossed by her voice. Sure, she’s not what I would call a good or likeable person, however, her penchant for morbidity and her unrelenting slasher enthusiasm made for an endearingly offbeat character. She very much makes the novel. This is how you execute the Not Like Other Girls trope. Readers are made aware of Jade’s striving to be different: her botched hair-dyeing, her trying-hard-to-be-edgy-but-is-actually-just-grubby look, her commitment to playing the town’s goth girl, her sometimes willful and sometimes unintentional disregard of social niceties and norms…Jade really seems to make an effort to be perceived this way, to be seen as the slasher-obsessed girl and a ‘weirdo’. The end result is that Jade is different, not better than others, just different. Now, for all her self-dramatizing we can also clearly see that Jade’s edgy girl persona has become an inextricable aspect of who she is. Whether she became this way due to trauma, or whether her commitment to the role was such that she eventually became that person, it’s up to the readers’ interpretation. I for one read Jade as being a mix of those things. She grew up in a very unstable environment, with no support system to speak of, one of her parental figures is an abusive drunkard, the other was not only complicit in said abuse but eventually left Jade to fend for herself. Understandably, given her lack of control in her life, the violent logic that operates in slashers would appeal to her. However, similarly to Shirley Jackson’s alienated and alienating (anti)-heroines I wonder whether different circumstances would really have made a difference for Jade… Anyway, her very presence in the story is fantastic for a number of reasons. She knows that her ‘existing’ in this slasher is an ‘aberration’: not only does she know too much about slashers but people like her do not usually feature in these movies. She flits between wanting to see sh*t hit the fan and wanting the slasher to well…slash her. One way or another, she’s hyped for it and not quite the screaming and scared side character that usually gets killed off in these films. Also, Jade’s intensity and morbidity reminded me of Merricat and Wednesday Addams, and similarly to them, she finds that other people are put out by what they perceive to be her strange behaviour and demeanour. When Jade begins talking or thinking about slashers and revisiting local horror lore, she seems wholly unaware of other people and the world around her. Yet, the other characters react in a very realistic wtf is her deal way that results in many surprisingly funny scenes. Jade’s zealousness over slashers also brought to mind, I kid you not, Patrick Bateman, specifically that scene with the card (where his overreaction is so extreme that he begins to sweat) and his music monologues. The conversational tone of the narrative adds a level of immediacy to the story and really work in capturing Jade’s wry voice. There were elements of absurdism that brought to mind The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher.
As things get bloodier and bloodier we do see a shift in Jade, but I appreciated that her character development ultimately remains very subtle and she remains her slasher-obsessed self. Learning more about her past and her trauma does ‘contextualize’ some of her behaviours, however, but we can’t quite reason away her slasher-mania as being the inevitable result of that trauma. Her ambiguousness made her all the more interesting to read about. While we learn all about what she thinks of slashers—its precursors & incarnations, its hits and flops, its tropes—much about her remains inaccessible to us. I didn’t understand her most of the time, and incongruently enough that made me like her even more.
The writing and atmosphere in My Heart Is a Chainsaw super solid. The writing has this snappy, energetic quality to it that not only really amplifies Jade’s slasher-obsession but it really adds to the action & otherwise murder-y sequences. The prose was also very effective when it came to pacing, as Jones’ rapid sentences really add fuel to the storyline. The atmosphere too is great. The narrative’s self-referential nature actually ends up adding to the story’s slasher ambience, as Jones’ is able to not only pay homage to slashers through his storyline (through’s jade’s non-stop references and asides about slashers to the actual implementation of the genre’s conventions) but he also makes this slasher his own, repeatedly subverting our expectations.
My Heart Is a Chainsaw was a riot. We have a gritty storyline, plenty of humour (from those ah-ah-that’s-funny moments to humor that is more on the lines of that’s-kind-of-fcked-up-so-why-am-i-laughing), and a protagonist whose flabbergasting antics I was equal parts obsessed and appalled by. Jones’ really captures Jade’s loneliness and anger, the long-lasting consequences of abuse, the complex ways trauma manifests into one’s behavior & personality…and of course, given the book’s focus on slashers and on being a slasher, Jade’s story heavily deals with revenge and violence… I’m really looking forward to the next instalments…(am i the only one who read jade as queer-coded?)
ps the first time i tried reading this i wasn’t feeling it and dnfed it early on so i can see why the book’s overall ratings aren’t sky high…still, if you are in the mood to read extensively about slashers or don’t mind a morbid and chaotic af protagonist, i think you should definitely give this one a chance.
disclaimer: i did not like this book. the opinions and impressions i will express in this review are entirely subjective and i am not in fact stating ‘irrefutable facts’. it has come to my attention that this author has a history of going on twitter to ‘bemoan’ reviewers who have given her book a negative review…which has never been a win in my books. so i will attempt to write this review with a death of the author approach. please do not confuse my negative review of this book as a personal attack on the author or as an estimation of the author herself as i do not know her in any capacity whatsoever. if you are incensed by reviewers expressing an opinion that differs from your own one, you are better off skipping this review (this includes you too eliza…).
vague and not so vague spoilers below
I am befuddled by the ratings and reviews singing this book’s praises. This is one of those cases where I am forced to ask myself: did I read the same book as everybody else? And before you @ me, no, I did not dislike this book because it is work of satire centred on an (exaggeratedly) intentionally unlikeable main character. Some of my favorite books focus on people who are varying degrees of horrible or ‘messy’ (my year of rest and relaxation, luster, madame bovary, sula, pretend i’m dead, you exist too much, apartment, symptomatic, these violent delights, and a lot of the stuff written by authors such as shirley jackson, danzy senna, and joyce carol oates). I also like characters like Hannibal or Villanelle. I read Lolita and while it did repulse me (as intended) I didn’t hate it because it was from the pov of a pdophile. And I am fond of the ‘she’s not feeling too good’ subgenre, contemporary books that are characterized by a caustic tone and explore the lives of women who are, you guessed it, not feeling too good and are depicted as alienated and self-sabotaging … I also do not have a problem with books combining dark humor with violence, My Sister the Serial Killer is a fave of mine. And a few months ago I was enthralled and disturbed by Titane directed by Julia Ducournau (who actually gets a mention in boy parts). All of this to say is that I can deal with and even appreciate characters who for whatever reason do, think, or say things that are ‘frowned’ upon or downright evil. I would go as far as to say that I prefer flawed characters over flawless/uber-likeable characters (very edgy of me, i know). My only caveat is that I have to find said unlikable characters interesting: Emma Bovary, for instance, is not a particularly clever character, you could say she is quite the opposite. She’s naive, pathetic, obnoxious, solipsistic, cruel, and superficial…but I found her acts of self-dramatization to be both fascinating and a source of great amusement. Ottessa Moshfregh’s narrator in MYORAR is nasty (she is awful to her supposed best friend, callous, narcissistic, morbid, and says/thinks offensive things about many groups of people). Did I condone her actions in the novel? No. Did I find her fcked up sense of humor to be highly addictive? Yes. This is all to say that Irina being a stronza who engages in ‘bad’ behaviour, is not why I didn’t like this book. The reason why I did not like this book has less to do with her being an unlikable cnt and more to do with her being boring as fck. Her internal monologue is repetitive, but not even in a realistic navel-gazey way, like Selin’s narration is in The Idiot, but in an incredibly affected way that just comes across as the book desperately trying to present this character as some counter-culture edgelady, who repeatedly ‘transgresses’ accepted norms of behaviours and—shock horror—flips the ‘male gaze’ on its head by being the one behind the camera. Maybe if this book had come out in the 80s, I would be more inclined to forgive or accept its many shortcomings, but since it was published in 2020 I have a harder time reconciling myself with its unimaginative and superficial exploration of female sexuality, the male gaze, and female rage. There is nothing clever about the way the narrative represents and discusses these themes. The narrative is very much all flash, no substance (tutto fumo e niente arrosto) as it not only mistakes shock value for real horror but it operates under the false assumption that gratuitous or otherwise sensationalistic content is subversive and thought-provoking. If this book had actually been disturbing maybe then I could have overlooked its pulpy and overt storyline…but it isn’t. Funnily enough the story’s numerous floundering attempts at edginess, but these feel dated and painfully affected, on the lines of Awad’s Bunny or Mariana Enríquez who at least do not settle for mid-tier levels of offensive but fcking commit.
Boy Parts reads like a short story that has been stretched beyond its expiry date. The ‘hook’, that of a ‘pervy’ female photographer, had potential for the first 30% of the narrative. Then things just get messy, and not a good kind of messy where I am enthralled by our mc’s unreliable and increasingly disconcerting narrative, but messy in a poorly executed kind of way. The writing changes slightly, but not in a believably organic way that reflects the main character’s spiralling mental health. The book’s satire is devoid of substance or bite. The caricatures populating this narrative are neither amusing nor particularly provocative. Some characters come across as heavy-handed attempts at capturing a certain type of person, while either serve no function other than to exist so the narrator can prove to the readers how nasty she is. The story could have been a lot more effective if the tone had been camped up, so we could have something along the lines of Jennifer’s Body (which is by no means a perfect film but at least it’s entertaining and self-aware). Or maybe if the book had gone for a more elliptical stream-of-consciousness type of storytelling, a la Clarice Lispector, maybe then I would have liked it more. But what we got just did not work for me at all. There was something profoundly simplistic about the way these themes are explored and the narrator is one of the dullest galls I have ever had the misfortune to read about. Being a tall and sexy white Northern who thinks she’s the fcking hardcore because she likes to take kinky photos of men she deems ‘beta’…yeah. The way the book satirizes England’s art scene is banal, we get unfunny lines about identity politics and artists such as Tracey Emin. The narrative doesn’t convey Irina’s creative process in a convincing way, in fact, I was left with the impression that—and here i must briefly break from my death of the author approach and acknowledge the existence of the author—whoever was behind the story was either not particularly familiar with photography or not interested in going into detail about it (as i said this an impression i formed, not a fact). As examinations of female creativity go, this one is derivative and unsatisfying. I mean, compared to We Play Ourselves, Self-Portrait with Boy, and Generation Loss (all of whom happen to focus on queer young women who are not portrayed as exclusively interested in men and in replicating tired dom/sub dynamics) Boy Parts just doesn’t go much into depth when it comes to Irina and her changing relationship to her photography. I didn’t feel that she actually felt passionate about these photos, rather, we are told what she did at a school, and she relates the art she produced in that period in a very meh way, and now she gets horny when she tells men to pose in vanilla sub positions, while she occasionally plays the dom role (stepping on them and sht). Like, wow. How edgy. And you might say that the narrative is less concerned about mapping out the creative process preceding these photos than with over-emphasising what the photos themselves signify. Male gaze who? Uhm. Sure. Thing is, this kind of obvious ‘appropriation’ of the male gaze and the misogyny often underlining said gaze is not new nor thought-provoking. Quite the opposite in fact. I found the logic at play in the narrative to be highly sus: Irina experiences misogyny and is objectified by the male gaze; Irina perpetuates misogyny + misandry and objectifies men, her models in particular. Irina has a sexual encounter where the partner doesn’t listen to her when she says she wants to be on top. He ignores and demands her to scream for him, yanking her hair. She says that since he is going to ignore her he ‘could put his back into it’. He takes this as a confirmation that she ‘likes it rough’. Quelle surprise, she later has sex with someone she deems weak who asks her to slap him she starts hitting him until he starts crying and this leads to the classic ‘victim becomes abuser’ kind of observation that doesn’t really go deeper than that. If anything it is annoying that we get that scene just so the mc can have this dark eureka moment. Early in the story, Irina goes to a party where she is meeting up with a guy who is there to make fun of the ‘I’m a Nice Guy Really’ type of men who claim they are feminists while trying to wrangle themselves out of being accused of SA. Anyway, she goes to this party with her spineless friend who reminds her that even if she acts all hardcore she is a vulnerable woman. Our mc makes a joke about being raped by the guys she’s hanging out with and what later follows is an intentionally unclear scene where it seems that this guy the mc went to see tried to rpe her while she was passed out or was otherwise incapacitated and therefore not being able to give consent. I really hated how timed this whole thing was. It was rather tasteless. I have come across other books that punish female characters who are confident in their sexuality or sexually active by resulting in scenes where they are SA or need a man to ‘save’ them. And here…this whole rpe subplot seems just there for shock value and nothing else. The narrative seems to forget about it, more intent on emphasizing how edgy and obscene the mc is. Fcking hell. Can we not?! I am not saying that I want every story to include rpe or SA to be serious and to exclusively revolve around this. However, the way the narrative meanders about without any real direction or without the kind of piercing commentary that makes up for vacuous storylines…I am left wondering why, why, why did we get this scene? Especially when the narrative seems confused about the kind of character Irina is. It seemed we were meant to perceive her as a vile character. Not quite a Humbert Humbert type of figure but someone who is working their way towards being the female equivalent of Patrick Bateman. She’s apathetic, has an inflated sense of self, experiences moments of dissociation where she observes the people around her with a mixture of superiority and detachment seems to categorize men in a way that is all the rage in the manosphere, and makes no compunction about transgressing accept norms of behaviour, engaging in sadistic behaviour, or deriving pleasure from what her society deems taboo (rpe fantasies etc.). She can also perform certain roles, such as that of the Manic Pixie Girl, to her advantage, for example when she wants to attract the kind of men who would be into that type of girl. Irina, so far, seems a satirical take on the femme fatale. Yet, we also get so many instances that go against what this kind of characterization is trying to establish. For instance, she forgets that she has to perform a certain role and says whatever the fck comes to her because she’s such a girlboss. Sometimes she would make observations or remarks that would be believable if they originated from someone ‘normal’ or who was not shown to have psychopathic traits. For example, after that guy forces himself on her…she wonders about whether she really wanted rough sex and why do women feel that they have to say yes to rough sex etc…which is a valid af point but I did not believe that someone like Irina would even bother to have such thoughts. She should have been annoyed that someone of no consequence had physically overpowered her. Previously her response to being SA at the party was to be annoyed that that non-entity guy had the gall to try to rpe her. But then we are meant to believe that she was in fact traumatized by this so much so that now she herself is subjecting others to the type of trauma she was victim to. Like…what is going on. And don’t get me started on how large chunks of the narrative make her abuse of men seem so fcking transgressive and hardcore when it was anything but. There is a storyline involving, you guessed it, ‘boy parts’ that was just a rip off from American Psycho (in that we are meant to question the veracity of irina’s recollection of these violent events). Anyhow, the man who Irina abuses most happens to be a lot younger than her and, unlike her, despite the story’s initial attempts at painting her as a struggling artist, her name is known in artsy circles and she can afford her living expense and the type of materials required to print out her edgy photos, he works at Tesco. Additionally, he is mixed-race, possibly queer, and was involved with someone abusive (emotional abuse is still abuse fellas). So, did I find Irina’s SA him, gaslighting him, humiliating him, mistreating him, etc, empowering? Not really. Sure, the narrative shows us just how ‘pathetic’ and ‘sad’ he is about his messed up relationship with Irina but his experiences bear no real weight on Irina’s narrative. He serves as a plot device through which Irina, a character who is supposed to be very much beyond caring, can inflict the trauma she herself was subjected to. Also, for someone who goes on scathing takes about ‘white people’ who pretend they are not ‘white’ but dance to The Smiths in this ‘post-racist-Morrissey’ era and expresses frustration about the misogyny and classism rampant in her day-to-day life…it seemed weird that she would think sht like this (“I know I’m white, but there’s just a lot of white people White People-ing in a very small area, like it’s just some very, very densely packed mayo, you know? Densely packed mayo, jiggling about, doesn’t know what to do with its arms, doesn’t know what to do with its feet, undulating loosely, barely in time to the rhythm.”) but actually says sht like this to the mixed-race boy she is toying around with (‘It’s fine for you being out in this heat; you tan. You’re always tan. You look like you’ve just been on holiday or something,’) or this (Japenese/Korean girls being the ‘same thing’). It would have made more sense if she’d said that first thing out loud, to impress her peers with how comfortably she can talk about whiteness and make them feel inadequate and less savvy (after all wasn’t she supposed to enjoy feeling superior to others?), and to ‘merely’ think the other two as to say them out loud in front of someone who is not white, and who she had identified as ‘sensitive’, and risk that he would see her for who she truly was. She, later on, writes a transphobic email to someone trans which again, was just gratuitous yet seemed included for laughs, and made me question why she would do that if this person could use that to prove to others that she is in fact awful. Why bother with all that gaslighting of your acquaintances if you then don’t give a sht about being exposed…? We are previously told that she is manipulative AF. She fools men and has her pathetic bff convinced they are friends to start with. Although she wants to transgress accepted norms of behaviour she knows these norms are there to begin with so in certain spaces she comports herself in a certain way, her art is the only indicator that she is into some smutty kinky stuff. I did not find her inconsistencies to be realistic or to result in a nuanced character. It seemed that the story didn’t really know what kind of character it wanted us to read about so it went all over the place. I wish that the story had committed to paint her as a morally reprehensible character we were meant not to like. The other characters are one-note and just as unrealistic. They would not be out of place in an episode of Family Guy or Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Speaking of Tarantino if you thought that Uma Thurman’s character in that or Kill Bill have some merit…well, you might like Boy Parts after all. This book radiates the kind of feminist energy that Cara Delevingne wearing that ‘peg the patriarchy’ outfit at the met gala gives. Trying to be provoking in a puerile way. And I can forgive a lack of intersectionality and dimension if say this, like Plath’s Bell Jar, had been published in the 1960s. But it wasn’t so…anche no.
Anyway, the side characters are just as boring as Irina herself. Some of them are downright insulting. We have someone who exists to be the transman who is the butt of the joke for many comments made by Irina. He makes two or possibly three appearances where she makes comments about his height, barbs that are meant to make him feel inadequate and not masculine enough, and later on writes that disgusting email to him where she goes on about identity politics and claims that he is solely drawing upon his personal experiences to produce art (when she is doing that very same thing…get it? ah! ). Flo (i had to check her name, that’s how memorable she is) is a rip off of Reva from MYORAR who exists to be the classic female friend in love with our female protagonist who does not and will not ever reciprocate her feelings. I am so f*cking tired of books that make the mc bisexual because it’s edgy and ‘different’ but then proceed to have said character almost exclusively engage in sexual/romantic relationships with men. This character will rarely if ever acknowledge or indicate that she finds people who are not men attractive. She will have a friend who is a lesbian or in this case a bi friend, who is in love with her. The narrative will mention towards the very start or the very end that she did have a relationship with a woman once and call it a day. They don’t even try to explore the mc’s internalised homophobia/biphobia. Here we have a line about Irina preferring men to women and that’s kind of it.
Anyway, don’t even get me started on Flo’s blog posts. What was the point in them? Irina gives us a summary of their contents so why add the blog entries themselves? Their attempts at making fun of cringe people like Flo came across as a joke that has gone on for too long. And mio dio, the amount of dated references in this book is something else. The film mentions make sense given that Irina is an edgy photographer but the amount of pop culture in these pages is just…it made me feel that I was having to slog through a series of insufferable twitter posts. If avoid that in real life why should I be interested in a fictionalized take on these comments/discussions? The conversations about kim’s bum did not make the dialogues realistic or mumblecoresque. They struck me as stagey and dull. The exploration of sexual desire that goes on in this novel is painfully and predictably heteronormative, with the ‘twist’ that the woman wants to be the more dominant party. How revolutionary. The more I write about this f*cking book the more I hate it. What an utter waste of time. With the exception of that funny line about Timothée Chalamet, I was not amused. I did not feel anything for our main girl. Her being hot, from the North, and into kinky sh*t do not make for a compelling character (‘Geordie girls are up there with Irish girls and Scottish girls; the black women of white women, you know?’….f*ck off). Maybe if the narrative had committed to portraying her as a menace I would have felt a modicum of interest. The instances where she is offensive are played up for laughs but were anything but. Her Mommy Issues™ and eating disorder are presented in a childish way and the narrative barely scratches the surface beneath these issues. You Exist Too Much deals with these issues in a much more nuanced and compelling way. Anyway, I don’t need a character’s motivations to think violent thoughts or do violent things to be made ‘transparent’: like I said I was transfixed by Titane, and there we learn virtually nothing about our central character, let alone why she goes on a killing spree. I also really love things like Stoker and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, both focus on morbid teens/young women. Or New People by Senna. That book presents us with a believably perturbing portrait of an alienated and alienating woman. But this is eh. Boy Parts reads like something that has been done before and better. It has the same vibe as those ‘that’s literally me’ filmbros who overidentify with the leads from films such as Taxi Driver, American Psycho, Fight Club, Drive, and Joker. Just because the lead here is a woman doesn’t make this wannabe subversive exploration of alienation any less cringe. I swear, Irina just gives Gaslight Gatekeep Girlboss vibes and it could have worked if the narrative had committed more fully to being a campy satire instead of then deciding it wanted to be dark and serious. Also, the way the latter half of the novel goes for this feverish, surrealist tone is just schifo. Even Awad did this better in Bunny. And don’t get me started on Caroline O’Donoghue’s Promising Young Women: the narrative there truly captures the narrator’s bizarre and disturbing dissolution. And if you prefer a more heavy exploration of r*pe I recommend Rosie Price’s What Red Was. And, of course, I May Destroy You: that series is just…spectacular. And its final episode is what Boy Parts wishes it was. Why didn’t the novel go for a subversive take on the ‘r*pe & revenge’ subgenre? I don’t know…it had the chance to but then seems to lose itself in a self-indulgent and puddle-deep exploration of the male gaze. The prose was derivative and lifeless. Now and again we get lines that are trying so hard to be provocative but failed to inspire a response in me (be it amusement or disgust). The first half of the novel would have Irina try to go for this conversational/confessional tone that just came across as trying to be Fleabag or the narrator from MYORAR (the constant ‘you know’ were annoying). I doth not understand the hype. Personally, I found this book’s attempt at being edgy and subversive to be rather performative and disappointingly shallow. And to compare this to Moshfegh’s MYORAR..? te piasaria…I was not a fan of the writing, of the plot, or of the way the narrative explores its themes. I am surprised that so many readers did not seem to pick up on this book’s Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss shtick. White feminism at its finest…and if this was intentional it doens’t result in a particularly daring or fascinating narrative. I mean, this book thinks its something by Gaspar Noé (a director who is not my cup of tea but i can’t deny that the man’s films are transgressive and really gratuitous) but it is just rather insipid. Like I said, the offensive bits just gave me Family Guy vibes. Again, I must stress how shallow this felt. And not in an intentional way, like in American Psycho and its critique of capitalism and consumerism. I wish the story could have actually interrogated more Irina’s own privilege, that’s she is white, able-bodied, pretty, and ‘straight’ passing…but it doesn’t. We get a very ostentatious take on a woman perpetuating the ‘male gaze’. It is such a pity. I am a fan of books depicting women capable of monstrosity not because i condone their behaviour but i find the way these narratives engage with their conflicting ideals of femininity and explore their darkest parts of their psyche fascinating.
Not all satire is good satire. And this just ain’t it for me. Boy Parts was banal. Really painfully banal. The kind of book that makes me wish that I could be able to unread things.
“Chemistry, while powerful, is sometimes unpredictable.”
Chemistry makes for a quick yet compelling read. While the narrative tries a bit too hard to be quirky, I did find certain scenes and or sections to be fairly amusing. Chemistry implements those ‘in’ literary devices such as an unnamed narrator and a lack of speech marks that I find somewhat predictable. Still, the story focuses on a Chinese American woman in her thirties who is studying for a PhD in chemistry. She’s in a relationship with a seemingly ‘good’ white guy who seems ready to take their relationship to the next stage (marriage). But, like a lot of contemporary female narrators, our mc is not feeling sure of anything. She’s struggling to keep up with the demanding hours of her PhD, overwhelmed by the pressure of other people’s expectations, and confused by her own feelings and emotions (she feels too much, nothing at all). While our narrator is initially able to go through the motions of her everyday life, she eventually slips behind her PhD. Her partner begins to grow restless at our narrator’s perpetual ambivalence towards the future, and soon enough our protagonist’s life begins falling apart. As we read of her present tribulations we are given insight into her experiences growing up. Her focus on academic success was instilled in her by her parents who always seemed dissatisfied with her, even when she studies what they want her to. In examining her relationship with her parents and the way they brought her up the narrator discusses the stereotypes about Asian parents. She also talks about the everyday microaggressions she experiences, particularly working as a woc in a field that is predominantly male. The author also captures those quarter-life crisis uncertainties that make you question whether the ‘path’ you are on is leading somewhere and if it is, whether you really want to reach that destination. The narrator’s growing discontent over her studies certainly resonated with me as I’m currently in my final year of my masters and I feel academically exhausted to the point where I considered (and still am) dropping out. It is particularly frustrating to see that no matter how hard you work or try, you don’t get the results/grades you hope for. On top of that, the narrator also has a dissolving relationship to cope with. While her partner is presented as this supportive nice guy he repeatedly fails to understand where she’s coming from, seems unable to understand her point of view, and remains blissfully unaware of his own privilege (as a cis straight white man from a financially and emotionally stable family). Our main character’s best friend, who is also nameless and referred to as ‘the best friend’, is also having troubles of her own as soon after giving birth discovers that her husband is betraying her. While these may all sound like heavy topics the tone of this story is very much light and comical. As I mentioned above, the narrative goes for this offbeat kind of tone that at times comes across as contrived. There were numerous instances where I did not find the narrator funny. There is a running-gag of sorts where she explains a joke to someone because her sense of humor is just so quirky that people don’t always get it. I did find her somewhat endearing. For example, in this scene, where her best friend is once again venting about her cheating husband: “This is all your fault, she says to one of the posters. You did this to him, you and your female wiles. Then she moves on to next poster. I follow and apologize to each woman in turn.”. Or when she imagines what her best friend’s baby is thinking: “The baby has become sentient. When we walk, she screams across the street at other babies, baby expletives, we think. Something along the line of Goddamn it, other baby, don’t try to out-cute me. To make matters worse, she is very cute, so we have a hard time correcting her.”. The writing could certainly be effective and I appreciated the way the author articulates these difficult to pin down feelings & fears. The narrator’s inner monologue is punctuated by scientific anecdotes that certainly fitted her background. While some of her jokes were misses, and her never-ending silly witticism did detract from her actual story, there were a couple of times where I found her genuinely funny.
“It is a double-edged sword. To be smart and beautiful, says the best friend, and this is probably very close to what every woman wants. I too had high hopes of growing up into both a genius and a bombshell. To be Marie Curie but then to also look like Grace Kelly.”
While the dialogue often rang true to life (in a mumblecore sort of way), some of the characters struck me as thinly rendered. The boyfriend for example is incredibly generic and exceedingly dull to the point where I did not feel at all affected by his departure. And, while I believed that the narrator is lonely, I wasn’t at all convinced that she loved him. Similarly, I didn’t buy into her bond with the math student she’s tutoring. I would have liked to see more of her parents or that they had not been painted in a negative light for 80% of the story. Still, overall, I liked Chemistry. I listened to the audiobook which was narrated by Julia Whelan, who, bear in mind is one of my favorite narrators, wasn’t the best ‘voice’ for this. That is to say that there are plenty of talented Asian American female narrators who could have narrated Chemistry. If you are looking for a humorous take on failure, self-fulfilment, parental and self-pressure, loneliness and connection, Chemistry might be your perfect next read. I can see this novel appealing to fans of Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu, Edge Case by YZ Chin, and Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang, all which also focus on young(ish) alienated Asian American women who feel stuck or caught in a directionless spiral. If you are a fan of the contemporary literary trend which is disaffected/directionless female protagonists who don’t feel so good, well, this title may a great addition to your tbr. I look forward to reading whatever Wang publishes next!
Compared to My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Eileen just ain’t it.
“I was like Joan of Arc, or Hamlet, but born into the wrong life—the life of a nobody, a waif, invisible. There’s no better way to say it: I was not myself back then. I was someone else. I was Eileen.”
Vile, vulgar, grotesque, sensationalistic, morbid, dismal, gratuitous, self-indulgent. These are some of the words that come to mind when I think of Eileen. The first I read it was back in 2018 I wasn’t particularly impressed by it, and in my original review I wrote that I found many elements within its story ‘excessive’ and that overall I found the narrative ‘flat’. I picked Eileen up again hoping that, as was the case with other novels that I originally ‘didn’t really get’ (an example would be hangsaman, a book i consider to be an all-time fave now), a re-read would improve my opinion of it. Alas, in this instance, a re-read failed to make me a fan of Eileen. Maybe it’s because I can’t help but compare this unfavourably to Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest of Relaxation. Now that one slaps. Eileen, does not. Here Moshfegh is much too heavy-handed when it comes to the ‘gross’ stuff, and every paragraph, or so it seemed, tried to be as repulsive and ‘shocking’ as possible. But I did not find Eileen’s obsession with bodily fluids, her abject view of her body (and those around her), her stalking and OTT creepiness to be that disturbing. Sure, her abhorrent behaviour and thoughts are ‘subversive’ because she’s a woman. How very refreshing. I’m sure gross girls are feeling very seen by this novel. While I found the dark humor in My Year of Rest and Relaxation to be funny, here, it seems non-existent. Is Eileen’s insanity supposed to amuse me? Her narration, compared to that of the nameless protagonist of MYORAR, drags. She’s so bloody repetitive and her various speculations, which quite clearly point to her solipsistic view of the world and paranoia, seemed not only predictable and uninteresting but very derivative of the ones had by Shirley Jackson’s heroines (they usually begin describing a what-if scenario that is wholly ridiculous in minute detail, seem to believe that the people around them are very interested in them, perform puzzling ‘little’ every-day rituals, equate normalcy with dullness, and have a hard time interacting with others). The novel’s inciting incident, Eileen’s meeting of Rebecca, happens far too late in the narrative, around the 35% mark. Before that it’s just Eileen being her gross-ass self, peeping on underage boy encroached at the prison where she works, perving on a prison guard, and enabling her alcoholic father who is as repulsive as she is. Most of the narrative is dedicated to Eileen’s navel-gazing. Her dysmorphic view of her body has led her to severe food restriction and the use of laxatives. While the story is set in winter in 1964 Massachusetts, the setting feels more often than not generically historical. The use of certain old-fashioned words seemed to be the author’s greatest attempt at rendering her setting That and the way the prison is run. Eileen begins her tale a week before her last Christmas in her hometown, before she ‘disappeared’. Now, as she often likes to remind us, she’s an ‘old’ woman. ‘Back then’ she repeats time and again, things were different. Anyway, the narrative is all about how gross and disgusting and alienated Eileen is. Her house is dank too and her father is a mean alcoholic. Is it nurture or nature that has made Eileen into such a myopic & maladaptive individual? I for one, do not care. As I said, Eileen struck me as a far less compelling character than MYORAR or, for that matter, Jackson’s anti-heroine. She eventually meets Rebecca who is, of course, beautiful but a cypher. The two supposedly feel a connection, or Eileen is made to feel as if they are connected, and then the event that finally pushes Eileen into driving off from her life & hometown happens. And boy did it lack oomph. It seemed as if Moshfegh had thought of this ‘incident’ on the spot. Which made it rather anticlimactic and not at all convincing.
Other than the occasionally effective line (that is just the right amount of fucked up), I found Eileen a chore to re-read. Eileen was a simplistic character whose horrid inner-monologue wasn’t particularly captivating or ultimately subversive, the language was often repetitive (“back then”/”old woman”/”you see”), side characters were one-note caricatures (the portrayal of eileen’s “drunken” father left a lot to be desired…), and the relationship between Eileen & Rebecca was a flop. If you are interested in reading something by Moshfegh I recommend you bypass Eileen in favour of MYORAR.
heads up: in this review i will be discussing self-harm
Described as being a ‘sharp’ and ‘witty’ debut Elizabeth Gonzalez James’s Mona At Sea is neither of those things. The novel tells yet another tale about an alienated millennial woman having a quarter midlife crisis. While Mona At Sea is far from terrible it is a novel that is clearly riding the coattails of its betters (to name a few that i liked: My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Luster, Pizza Girl, Severance, You Exist Too Much, Pretend I’m Dead, books by Caroline O’Donoghue; to name a few i did not like all that much: Milk Fed, Exciting Times, Hysteria, The New Me, Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead, Three Rooms, and Nobody, Somebody, Anybody). Not only does almost everything about Mona At Sea read like a poor imitation of these novels—from its trying but failing to be sardonic tone to its ironic characterisation (we have the ‘dudebro’, the rich friend with body image problems, the leery ‘this is a boys’ club’ businessmen) and, the pièce de résistance, its self-sabotaging main character—and doesn’t bring anything new to this ‘alienated women’ subgenre.
Set in 2008 the story is narrated by Mona Mireles, a twenty-three-year-old who majored in finance at the University of Arizona. After the job she was promised at an investment bank in New York falls through due to the financial crisis of 2007-2008, Mona, a high-achiever who has dedicated herself to her studies and future career, is unemployed and struggling to keep afloat. She sends hundreds of applications but is unwilling to look for jobs outside the finance sector as she is unwilling to compromise. What follows is a rather typical narrative in which Mona engages in self-destructive and antisocial behaviour, pushing those close to her away, until she eventually finds herself lowering her ‘expectations’ and getting a job at a telemarketing business and re-assessing why she’s so set on getting into finance. We don’t learn much about her relationship with her parents, other than her mother seems to have always pressured her into aiming high while her father has encouraged her to take time to ‘find herself’ and pursue something that she actually likes. The two are having marriage problems but these are broached superficially, partly due to Mona’s solipsism, which leads her to ignore those around her, and partly because the narrative just doesn’t seem all that intent on giving depth to those two characters, let alone their marriage. Her younger brother is a typical dudebro who is far more likeable than Mona herself. The men Mona begins frequenting are similar shades of dickish. Mona’s relationship with her best friend seemed a poor imitation of the toxic one from My Year of Rest and Relaxation. A clip starring Mona goes viral and she’s occasionally approached because of it (she’s nicknamed ‘Sad Millennial’ as she was crying during this interview which occurred after she discovered that she would not be getting her ‘dream’ job after all).
As Mona struggles to make it through each day, she engages in self-harm. Here the novel became off-putting, especially in its sensationalist approach to this subject matter. Fyi, not that it should bear any weight on the ‘validity’ of my opinion on this (after all, this is my own personal opinion, others readers will undoubtedly feel differently and all that jazz), I used to self-harm throughout most of my teens. Mona’s self-harming is portrayed as being ‘different’, ‘artistic’ even as the scars she’s inflicting on her thigh depict Leonardo’s Mona Lisa (and yes, her second name happens to be lisa). Now, I know that there are those who carve words & probably images on themselves however here Mona’s self-harming is elevated into being an artistic expression, she who for so long had focused on engaging and pursuing those kinds of activities that will enhance her career prospects, is creative after all! Wow! Amazing. And (minor spoilers i guess), the guy she dates later in the novel (a douchebag to be honest) takes photos of her ‘Mona Lisa’, telling her the usual patronising bullshit on the lines of ‘your scars are beautiful’ and ‘they show you are survivor’ and pressures her into accepting his request to showcase these photos. When she refuses she also snaps at him for other reasons and is shown to be the unreasonable one (there she is blaming him for her parents’ troubles or her own insecurity or her not so great career prospects). In the end, guess what? She gives in! And it all works in her favor! The guy was right after all. Puah-lease. And I hated that Mona’s self-harming is portrayed as being ‘different’, Not Like Other Self-Harmers. I came across an interview with the author where she said that she had no sensitivity readers (quelle surprise) but she did a lot of research on the topic of self-harming and that anyway Mona’s self-harming is atypical. First, I’m afraid I will dislike anyone who shows too much fascination with something like self-harming. It makes me feel like a subject, a rat lab. Second, why, why, why does her self-harming need to be so on the nose? She’s called Mona Lisa and here she is carving Mona Lisa into her thigh. Like, wtf? The narrative tries to go for this caustic tone, but I found it painfully unfunny and not particularly amusing. Its satire has no bite, its social commentary was not particularly insightful, and its depiction of unemployment, depression, self-harm were shallow indeed. But the worst offender in this novel is Mona herself. I usually end up loving or rooting for supposedly unlikable characters (they can be vain & cruel like Emma Bovary, or assholes like Ronan Lynch, or fucked up like Moshfegh’s narrator) but Mona was just so annoying. She’s a perfectionist, we get it. She’s been ‘made’ that way, it isn’t entirely her fault. Her mother and her teachers and professors have had a hand in making her so career and goal obsessed. To have a successful and prestigious career is to be happy…right? Except that things don’t go as per plan for Mona and she feels understandably lost…and yet, even bearing this in mind, I still found her insufferable. She wasn’t funny, or clever, or sympathetic. For most of the narrative she’s self-centred, ungrateful, and just painfully annoying. And yes, she does ‘grow’ (supposedly) but even so I did not feel invested in her arc. People call her out on her shit and she learns to be a better person. And could I bring myself to care? No. I did not. Part of me thinks that she had it easy all things considered (especially if we consider that she got to age 22/23 without having to work so that she could fully dedicate herself to her studies…). Maybe if you haven’t read any of the novels I mentioned above and you are not particularly bothered by how a story handles self-harming you might find this a more rewarding read than I did.
“When I next love someone, they will die suddenly, unfairly, quickly, oddly, suspiciously, horrifyingly, traumatically; they’ll die in the worst way that someone could, and I will have to stand by and watch, take a photo.”
Funny, raw, heartbreaking, Sunset is an exceptional debut novel. Jessie Cave’s unsparing portrayal of grief in all of its complexities is striking for its realism and depth. Cave’s blend of humor and tragedy did bring to mind Fleabag and I would definitely recommend fans of that show, or I May Destroy You for that matter, to pick this up. The novel is narrated by Ruth who is in her mid-20s and leading a rather directionless lifestyle. Her older sister, Hannah, is very much her anchor and the two share an intense bond. Rather than resorting to the classic good/bad sister type of characterisation Cave makes both Ruth and Hannah into multidimensional and entirely authentic people, who have flaws and idiosyncrasies as well as many other qualities. The two love each other to bits, even if they bicker a lot. They are best friends, each other’s worlds, really. The two go on a summer holiday together and a horrific accident happens to leave Ruth bereft. She attempts to shut other people out and begins working at a Costa in Heathrow airport. As time goes by Ruth is forced to confront what happened on that holiday.
There is so much that I loved about this novel. Ruth is a wonderful narrator. Her anger, loneliness, grief, numbness, frustration, and sadness are depicted with such heart and realism as to bring her character to life. Her sense of humor, occasionally dark, always weird, made me laugh out loud and like her almost instantly. Some of her thoughts may very well make you uncomfortable but I appreciated how honest Ruth’s voice was. Her relationship with her sister is the central aspect of her story and their dynamic was wonderful and heart-rending. From their small habits to the way they speak to others or each other, Cave captures everything about them, making Ruth and Hannah feel less like fictional characters than real-life individuals. I also loved the way Cave portrays and discusses things like depression, death, sex, menstruations, and other things that are usually sensationalised or romanticised or completely glossed over. In addition, Ruth’s narrative is full of piercing observations about other people or her own life. I also found that those references to ‘real’ places (such as Costa, Tesco, WHSmith) made Ruth’s London all the more vivid. It’s impressive that this is Cave’s debut as it is such an accomplished novel. Her prose is self-assured, her tone is consistent, and her characterisation is phenomenal. Cave’s depiction of grief and sisterhood is moving and believably messy. At first, I wasn’t sure about the way the dialogue is laid out (it appears in a script-like way) but I soon grew accustomed to it and I commend Cave for her choice (rather than jumping on the no quotation marks bandwagon). Speaking of dialogues, these too are marvellously realistic. The exchanges Ruth has with others could be funny, awkward, and/or tense. Regardless of the nature of the discussion or conversation, Cave’s dialogues rang true-to-life. Sunset is a bittersweet love story between two sisters that is bound to make you tear up and laugh out loud (often in quick succession). If you happen to like stories that focus on sibling bonds or that follow the experiences of directionless millennials, well, consider giving Sunset a shot. To sum it up: I loved this review so much one day after reading my netgalley copy I popped into waterstones during my lunch break and bought a hardback edition of it.
ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
As per usual I was swayed by a pretty cover. I mean, just look at it!
Anyway, as much as I wanted to like Build Your House Around My Body, it left me feeling rather underwhelmed. The narrative seems very much intent—hellbent even—on nauseating its readers, at times adopting a playful tone to do so. Ultimately, the story’s relentless efforts to be as abject as possible succeeded only in making me feel nothing for the characters.
The novel’s first few chapters were intriguing in a Neil Gaiman kind of way but with each chapter this reminded me more and more of Mariana Enríquez (not my cup of tea). Build Your House Around My Body takes place in Vietnam, shifting between a cast of interconnected characters, and moving from the 1940s to the early 2010s. In 2011 a Vietnamese American woman named Winnie living in Saigon goes missing, less than a year after arriving in Vietnam. Over the course of the novel, we learn of what led her to Saigon and of her stint as an English teacher. A section of the narrative follows the Saigon Spirit Eradication Co. who are called to investigate some ‘spooky’ ongoings at a Vietnamese farm, another introduces us to a Vietnamese French boy sent to a boarding school during colonial rule, and then there are chapters focusing on three childhood friends, Binh, a supposedly feisty young girl and two brothers, Tan and Long, who share the same kind of bland personality. The setting is vividly rendered, that’s for sure. We feel the oppressive heat and humidity experienced by the characters and the author has a knack for bringing to life the environments in which her characters are (be it a cemetery, a forest, or a dingy bathroom). The various storylines however don’t really flow that well together. The author wastes too much time poking fun at secondary characters that she loses sight of her novel’s central figures. Take Winnie. She remains a half-formed character, and while some of her vagueness may be intentional she could have still been fleshed out more. But her chapters often detail the silly routines of her colleagues or try really hard to gross you out through unpleasant descriptions of bodily fluids. Each storyline seems punctuated by slime, sweat, and shit. Which…yeah. The supposed revenge storyline doesn’t really come into play until the very end of the novel and by the end, it was glaringly obvious what had taken place in the past. The only section that made me feel somewhat amused was the one featuring the Fortune Teller’s First Assistant, but she was at beat a minor character (more of a cameo appearance really). I had the distinct impression that this it the type of novel that is confusing for the sake of being confusing and I never much cared for these types of stories. Not only did the characters feel flat but I felt at a remove from them. The narrative spends so much time ridiculing them or comparing their facial features or appendages to foods/animals that I never saw them as ‘real’. To be perfectly honest I don’t think I entirely understood what this book was going for. As I said already the novel’s raison d’être seems to be that of repulsing the readers. The issues the narrative attempts to touch upon—female agency? maybe? I don’t really have a clue—are lost in a murky melange of disparate storylines that don’t really come together that well nor do they succeed in bringing the characters or their struggles to life. While the setting was rendered in startlingly detail. the characters—their experiences and their relationships to one another—remain painfully vague.
“I dreaded spring, the harassment of a pleasant sunny day. But it came anyway, and with the trees budding outside my window, I said, Okay, time to live again.”
The cover and summary led me to believe that Nobody, Somebody, Anybody would be yet another My Year of Rest and Relaxation copycat so I was relatively surprised to discover that style and tone-wise this novel shares far more in common with Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman and Hilary Leichter’s Temporary. While by no means incompetently written Kelly McClorey’s debut was a bit too vanilla for my taste, and, there were instance in which her prose brought to mind Jenny Offill’s Weather (not a favourite of mine).
“I would choose suffering over indifference any day. As Florence Nightingale said, out of nothing comes nothing, but out of suffering might come the cure—give me pain over paralysis!”
Amy Harney, our protagonist, is in her late twenties and working as a chambermaid at a yacht club while waiting to retake the EMT exam at the end of the summer. Still grieving her mother’s death Amy avoids her father and brother. After becoming persona non grata at her university Amy has also no friends. In spite of her bizarrely positive work-attitude, which really did remind me of Murata’s Keiko, her supervisor doesn’t seem to like her that much. To ward off loneliness Amy opens her landlord’s post, only to one day discover that he paid a subscription to find a Ukrainian wife. As he waits for his fiancé’s visa her landlord, Gary, begins to test out recipes on Amy, in order to hone his culinary skills. Amy, who tries to be what other people want her to be, seems happy to be a sympathetic ear to him, dispensing praise and helpful advice. Meanwhile, to guarantee her success at the exam Amy prescribes herself a placebo: she will act as if she has already passed the EMT exam, going so far as to tell others about it and to create counterfeit documents and ids. The more time she spends with Gary, the more she likes the feeling of belonging. Alas, others do eventually begin picking up on her obsessive, and increasingly delusional, behaviour.
While at first, I found Amy’s irrationally upbeat narration quirky, her story did feel relatively unremarkable. This is yet another novel starring an alienated American millennial who is disconnected from others, if not reality itself. Amy tells herself that she wants to be an EMT, but as her fixation towards Gary grows, she loses sight of what had until then motivated her. More often than in her desperate attempts at connection Amy puts people off. Because Amy lacks both social skills and self-awareness she tends to make faux pas, ignores other people’s privacy, and falls prey to idiosyncratic flights of fancy. She finds some comfort in quoting or thinking about Florence Nightingale, who is her idol (I did wonder whether Amy was aware of the not-so-great things Lytton Strachey had written about Nightingale…).
In spite of her zesty narration, I never felt all that taken or enthused by Amy. She remained somewhat amorphous, which sometimes works in favour of a character but here it didn’t. The mumblecoresque dialogues weren’t as funny as they portended to be, and Amy’s experiences working as a cleaner did not hold a candle to Mona’s ones in Pretend I’m Dead. This brings me to my biggest problem with this novel: its style, tone, characters, and story bring nothing new to the self-sabotaging-maladaptive-millennial genre. Amy’s placebo cure also left me somewhat wanting as I was excepting something slightly more unorthodox.
Nobody, Somebody, Anybody lacked the originality of Murata and Leichter’s novels, nor was it as darkly funny or razor-sharp as Pizza Girl, Luster, or Pizza Girl. The author’s take on contemporary malaise didn’t feel particularly insightful or clever. Still, I think that readers who haven’t read all those novels that I just mentioned may find this more entertaining than I did. For me, however, this a rather unremarkable read that sits somewhere between Dolan’s not-so-exciting Exciting Times and Austin’s Everyone in This Room Will Someday be Dead. These books may have the odd funny moment but other than that…non sono un granché.
ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
“I thought tests led to something. A diagnosis led to a plan, a cure. But tests, I know now, never lead us anywhere. Tests are dark roads with no destinations, just leading to more dark.”
All’s Well makes for an entertaining if somewhat flawed romp. The novel is narrated by Miranda, a theatre professor in her later thirties, who is not doing so well. After falling off a stage during her early acting career Miranda has been left in a state of perpetual pain. Bad surgeries, failed recoveries, inept physiotherapists have all left their mark on her body and Miranda now struggles to even move her right leg and suffers from chronic pain (her back, hip). She’s divorced and has no friends left.
“I was always busy. Doing what? Grace would ask. Getting divorced. Seeing another surgeon, another wellness charlatan. Gazing into the void of my life.”
Not only are her colleagues disbelieving of her pain but even her doctors treat Miranda’s ‘failed’ attempts to improve as something she ought to be blamed for. She decides that her class should stage Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well since not only did she herself act in that play years previously (giving a brilliant performance) but elements within its story (such as helena’s ‘cure’) appeal to her. Alas, her students are not so keen, wanting instead to stage Macbeth. Briana, who always gets parts not because she is talented but because her parents’ generous donations to the college, seems particularly intent on making Miranda’s life difficult. When Briana ‘mutiny’ succeeds Miranda is equal parts furious and despairing. Not only does she have to deal with her body being in constant pain but now she feels that her life has reached its lowest point, with no one believing her about her chronic pain or even respecting her. At the local pub, she comes across three mysterious men in suits who not only know all about her professional and personal life but they also seem eager to help her. One golden drink later and Miranda blacks out. Wondering whether she is really losing it Miranda goes to rehearsals where after an ‘altercation’ with Briana she finds herself feeling increasingly better. Not only is her pain gone but she can once again move her body with ease. And, it just so happens that she can stage All’s Well That Ends Well after all. So what if Briana has fallen gravely ill? Not all gifts have to come at a price….right?
“Still sick, so we hear. So sad. We are all terribly sad about it, turly. Truly, truly.”
In a similar fashion to Bunny, All’s Well present its readers with an increasingly surreal narrative. From the start, Miranda’s voice is characterised by a note of hysteria, and as the story’s events unfold, her narration becomes increasingly frenzied. She’s paranoid and obsessive, one could even say unhinged. Yet, even after she’s crossed, leapt over even, the line I found myself still rooting for Miranda. I loved that detail about her ‘asides’ being overheard by others. The latter half of the novel does fall into the same pitfalls as Bunny. The language gets repetitive, the weirdness feels contrived, and we get this surreal sequence that could have been cut short (a joke that goes on for too long ends up being not all that funny).
The narrative’s dark, sometimes offensive, humor brought to mind Ottessa Moshfegh, Jen Beagin, and Melissa Broder. The side characters were a bit unmemorable, Miranda’s colleagues in particular, and I wish more time had spent on getting to know the students (we only learn a bit about three of them) or to see them rehearsing the play. My favourite scenes were the ones with the three suited men, I really loved the way they are presented to us. They gave some serious David Lynch and Shirley Jackson vibes. I wish that Miranda’s visit to that sadistic doctor could have been left out of the novel as they felt a bit heavy-handed. Then again, this not a nuanced or complex novel. It is absurd, occasionally funny, and mostly entertaining. The novel’s exploration of chronic pain did not feel particularly thought-provoking but there were instances that I could relate to (i happen to suffer from a seasonal autoimmune disease and i’ve had to put up with patronising doctors dismissing the severity of my symptoms). It seemed a bit weird that no one believed Miranda (or that crutches and walking sticks do not exist in this universe so characters are constantly ‘hobbling’ with their leg dragging behind them). Still, we do get spot-on passages like this:
“But not too much pain, am I right? Not too much, never too much. If it was too much, you wouldn’t know what to do with me, would you? Too much would make you uncomfortable. Bored. My crying would leave a bad taste. That would just be bad theatre, wouldn’t it? A bad show. You want a good show. They all do. A few pretty tears on my cheeks that you can brush away. Just a delicate little bit of ouch so you know there’s someone in there. So you don’t get too scared of me, am I right? So you know I’m still a vulnerable thing. That I can be brought down if I need be.”
I appreciate Miranda’s journey, from being the who is wronged to being the one who wrongs others, and I liked her hectic OTT narration. Yes, Awad’s style has this sticky extra quality to it that I am still not 100% fond of but here I found myself buying into it more. If unlike me, you were a fan ofBunny you will probably find All’s Well to be a pretty entertaining read. Those who weren’t keen on Bunny may be better off sampling a few pages before committing to All’s Well (some may find it irritating or unpleasant: “all of them gazing up at my body, lump foul of deformity”). Personally, I found All’s Well to be far more well-executed than Bunny and Miranda makes for a fascinating protagonist.
Side note: I don’t want to nitpick but Italians use ‘primavera’ to say ‘spring’ (if you want to argue about the etymology of ‘primavera’ ‘first spring’ would not be incorrect but Awad does not make that distinction so…).
ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Sadly Everyone in This Room Will Someday be Dead doesn’t bring anything new to the directionless-young-woman-spends-all-her-time-navel-gazing-under-the-torpor-of-ennui subgenre. At times, Austin’s brand of cringe comedy tried too hard to be cringey, so much so that I ended up not buying into a certain scene or character. Gilda, a recently unemployed twenty-something lesbian, is obsessed with death. Her preoccupation with death is such that she thinks of it all the time. For instance, when sitting on a chair she wonders whether the people who sat on it before are dead. She envisions terrible scenarios, in which she or someone else dies. At times she suffers from panic attacks which lead her to make frequent visits to her hospital. No one seems to notice how disconnected Gilda is from her everyday life. As with all the other alienated millennial women populating these novels, Gilda seems unable to perform even the most basic of tasks. She’s too depressed to wash herself or the dishes, she often forgets to reply to her maybe girlfriend and seems painfully unaware of the world around her. She has many surreal conversations with others, who often seem blind to Gilda’s depression and anxiety. Gilda unintentionally lands herself a job as a receptionist at Catholic church where she discovers that her predecessor died. Gilda, being death-obsessed, tries to learn more about this woman This novel cemented my dislike for 1st person present tense narratives. Every seemingly mundane action Gilda makes has to be mentioned, so that we have many lines such as these: I drink, I get up, I put the cup on the counter, I move my hand, I walk, I sit, I blink, I look down/up. The way the story is presented on the page also really grated me. On one page there could be three separate paragraphs, each one focusing on a different conversation/moment of Gilda’s life. We then end up with one simple dialogue, say between Gilda and that Giuseppe guy, dragging on for pages, and being interrupted by Gilda’s conversations with the people from the church or her family. I just found this style choppy and artificial, better suited to a tv show than a book. Speaking of tv shows, this novel tries really hard to be something in the realms of Fleabag, but whereas that show does a fantastic job in making absurd conversations or OTT characters seem believable, here, I just did not buy into what I was reading. For instance, that whole Giuseppe thing was just unnecessary. The guy is the classic fitness-crazed wannabe guru that is a dime a dozen on YouTube and social media. And he speaks in this very contrived way, 24/7. Austin’s character lacked nuance, finesse, whatever you wanted it to call it. Giuseppe could have been funny but Austin is too heavy-handed, and the result is an unfunny caricature. Gilda’s parents are also painfully one-dimensional. They get barely any page-time and even when they appeared they remained amorphous. Gilda’s mother is relegated to the role of mom, and her father is just a generic dad. The scenes they were included in were just there to show how unfair they are to Gilda. While I could believe that some parents would wrongly blame one child instead of the actual guilty child, the way this played out here was just incredibly unrealistic (I am talking about that ‘get out’ scene). It was so unbelievable that it really pulled me out of the story. The maybe girlfriend is just as generic as Gilda’s parents. She makes very few if any appearances and mostly sends texts to our mc asking what she’s up to or whatnot. A character that had the potential was Gilda’s brother, but, ultimately I didn’t like how the story handles him (how delusional is Gilda to think that leaving him a message like that could magically cure his alcoholism and, as Giuseppe would say, ‘live his truth’ The people at the church where Gilda works were uninteresting. They are old and think that the internet is a magical and mysterious place. Because they are old you see. Old people don’t know anything about the internet as Austin reminds us so many times. Gilda herself was just exhausting and I cared little for her. She overanalysis everything around her, and while at times her observations could amusing or feel authentic, for the most part, it was just boring being in her head (for instance when she goes on about she’s had her hands for her whole life and that they fed her everything she has ever eaten so far). Rather incongruously the author seemed to be rying to make Gilda ultra-relatable by making her think or say these trivial things while at the same time emphasizing how different Gilda is from those around her. The setting of this story is so generic that I could not tell you where it takes place. America? Canada? Australia? Maybe this was mentioned once somewhere in the novel but the author doesn’t really depict Gilda’s environment. A counterargument to this could be that Gilda is too wrapped up in her own head to observe her surroundings, but, what about My Year of Rest and Relaxation? The narrator there is decidedly inward-looking and spends most of the book in the confines of her apartment and yet the author there manages to really give us an impression of the place (New York) and time (2000-20001) the story is taking place in. There were moments now and again that made me smile or that felt particularly spot-on, such as when Gilda gives us a brief rundown of her experience on dating apps. But these genuinely funny were rare. All in all, I found this novel to be more of a flop than a hit. Maybe I have read too many books that feature aimless alienated women in their twenties but, in comparison to My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Luster, and Pretend I’m Dead, Everyone in This Room Will Someday be Dead is quite forgettable.