Books: I had a lot of time to kill recently so I finished King John. So not the best Shakespeare. But I’m well halfway through my Shakespeare re-reading.
Music: Some Tom Waits.
Mood: As evidenced by February’s empty archives, February was a tiresome month that left me not a drop of energy to write. Things are happening but I’m mostly rather tired for now.
I read Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann for the first time in December two years ago and immediately decided to read it again, which practically never happens. But this book moved me; so even though I got back to it after a year rather than immediately, this review is born of two readings. It’s a controversial book if you look at Amazon reviews: people either love it or hate it and had I seen the reviews before I started the book, I wouldn’t have picked it up. It sounds like nothing I’d enjoy: little plot, depressing and rambling? No thanks. Except, while you might argue for these things, the book is so much more.
It is a story of a girl, Eveline Auerbach, finishing high school on the threshold of the 80s, falling in love and suffering traumas. Now, I have no 80s nostalgia and the iconic literature of that time to which Anthropology is often compared – all the American Psychos and Bright Lights, Big Cities – is on my shortlist of the scourges of the world, together with head lice. But Hamann, while I suppose true to the spirit of the times, manages to make the 80s universal. She does that through a minute, obsessive vivisection of Eveline, the first-person narrator, who’s extremely introspective and prone to noting every little observation. She’s a visual artist but, as so often happens in novels, a visual artist is just a stand-in for a writer: Eveline seems more interested in words, the subtlety of their meaning, than in images. (To be precise, she’s often shown creating art but it’s the interest in language that colors her narrative.) Her observations, while based on banal everyday occurrences, are poignant and aphoristic. Every chapter holds a few phrasing gems.
The main reason why this book delighted me so is how I related to the heroine – not because I’d ever been a knock-out anorexic beauty to turn all the heads in a room but because of her attempts to put the world into words and to define it with precision. That’s how I used to imagine writing when I was a teenager harboring writerly ambitions: as always looking for striking ways to describe small things. So, while it’s not something I say often (or ever), the poesy of Hamann’s writing is what makes the book such a find.
And one more thing that Hamann captures amazingly is a teenage immature love – not the reality of it (I’m sure such romances never happen) but the concept. Eveline falls for Harrison Rourke, a substitute teacher, actor and boxer. Virile, trustworthy, protective and pretty much flawless, Rourke is not so much a character as an archetype of a man. From my point of view today I see their relationship as peculiar in its complete lack of communication: they learn crucial things about each other exclusively from other people, which often fuels the story’s drama. However, I still remember that when I was a teenager directing steamy dramas in my head, that’s exactly what they based on: the fact that their characters never properly talked to each other, which would have led to too speedy conclusions.
The first part of the love affair, with Evie in high school, admiring Rourke from afar also rang very true: the kind of imaginary relationship in which every look, every exchange grows to mean the whole world. Hamann manages to be both subtle and sexy in those descriptions of first encounters: they have an almost oniric quality. Nothing really happens (yet) but the tension is palpable.
The second half of the novel shows Evie past Rourke and past high school, entangled in a self-destructive, self-punitive relationship with devilish Mark, a true child of Ellis and McInerney. This part is more socially conscious, with the descriptions of the glamorous, empty throng that Evie and Mark hang out with. More happens here but in a way this period of Evie’s life is more of a waiting game than high school, when nothing substantial really happened.
Mark is an evil reflection of Rourke: a man without honor, manipulating the girl with money and position, sexually perverse. There’s also a third friend, Rob, who’s the de-sexualized male companion, taking on the role of a reliable friend (and also a small-time crook involved with Jersey mob). Possibly, it’s not an accident that their names can be combined to form Ro-ark because they embody certain qualities – good or bad – that Rourke lacks. Of course, I might be reading too much into it; this book invites speculation. I should also add that the super-positive image of Rourke is a direct result of the first person narration. We only see him through Evie’s eyes, and to her he’s an enigmatic perfection. I can easily imagine a negative, feminist analysis of Rourke – but I don’t really want to because Evie’s vision seduced me sufficiently to enjoy this specimen of perfect literary manhood.
There’s also a whole – important but not that convincing to me – issue of Evie’s first boyfriend; of her perplexing relationship with her parents; of friendship and betrayal, suicide, drugs, sexual abuse, pregnancy, Reagan’s politics, not to mention boxing: so it’s not a book where nothing happens at all. But the real strength of the novel lies in the subtle texture of its language and in the unapologetic introspection of the main character, which reminded me of what it felt like to be seventeen. Few books about teenage girls manage to be so true to their subject matter.