Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Famous Ones, and Everyone Else: Gender & Class in the Novels of Meg Wolitzer

Author Meg Wolitzer. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

"She understood that it had never been about talent; it had always been about money."
 – Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings

“The people who change our lives . . . give us permission to be the person we secretly really long to be but maybe don’t feel we’re allowed to be.” – Meg Wolitzer, The Female Persuasion

Recently, I discovered a major talent when I read The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer (Riverhead Books, 2018). I was astonished that I had never heard of her before. I mentioned my enthusiasm for it to a friend who had a similar experience with her 2013 book The Interestings so I decided to read it as well. I still wondered why Wolitzer was unfamiliar to me until I read her 2012 essay in The New York TimesAlthough at that time she had published nine books, she lamented that few female writers of literary fiction are taken seriously by men unless their major protagonist is a male, they write short stories, or they embarked on their writing careers during the women's movement of the 1970s. Perhaps her piece had touched a collective literary nerve, since the publication the following year of The Interestings turned out for her to be a breakout novel, deservedly so, about the lives of both men and women.

Reading these two absorbing novels together has the benefit of revealing certain Wolitzer trademarks: her interest in exploring a broad range of relationships over a large span of time (romance, friendship, that between parents and their offspring, and that between mentors and acolytes); her penchant for fictionalizing a character or situation that will remind readers of real-life personalities or events; her ability to connect the lives of her characters to larger real-life issues such as presidential politics; her interest in the power of cults to prey upon the vulnerable; her fascination with the 1980s AIDS crisis and the 2008 financial crisis; and the fact that her writing is laced by turns with verbal brio, acerbic and funny lines, and astute observations. Above all her novels are character-driven and it would be hard to review them without familiarizing the reader with her characters  sometimes with more detail than I generally prefer  and the trajectory of their lives before addressing the issues that animate Wolitzer.


The Interestings narrates the lives of a group of teenagers who assign that moniker to themselves when they meet at a summer camp for the arts in 1974. Wolitzer tracks their lives and their relationships with each other until they reach middle age almost forty years later. Among them is Ethan Figman, a plain, awkward boy with a gift for animation who one day creates a famous television show à la The Simpsons, and whom Wolitzer describes as having so many ideas "that they were like Tourette's syllables that needed to be spat out in chaotic yips and explosions." There is Jonah Bay, the son of a famous female folk singer  think Joan Baez  who has musical talent himself but whose artistic aspirations and personal development are arrested by an exploitative banjo player who happens to be a friend of his mother. Two are the wealthy and beautiful twin siblings, Ash and Goodman Wolf. The ethereal Ash (the sister) becomes a feminist theatre director; Goodman’s suave charisma and his exalted position in the group confer upon him the impression that that he can sail through life with ease, that he is untouchable. The most important character is Jules Jacobson, the frizzy-haired outsider with acting aspirations from the unglamorous New York suburbs who is the most deeply affected by that summer-camp experience. It is her sense of herself, her need to be "interesting," live a "special," publicly recognized life, and her often conflicted feelings towards members of that charmed circle that are the major ingredients in this propulsive novel.

(Photo: LitLens)

Jules's outsider status allows Wolitzer to explore her character's relationship with the charmed circle through the prism of class. Although Jules's jealousy of her best friend Ash's beauty is primarily motivated by personal envy, she increasingly becomes aware that Ash's access to a good education and her ability to become a director are largely owing to her privileged family and wealthy husband, Ethan. She has difficulty hearing the insights offered by her own husband, Dennis, who comes from a more modest background than many of Jules's friends, when he challenges their pretensions and her obsession with them. Jules remains envious of the gilded life that Ash and Ethan enjoy even as she learns about the deceit that will eventually threaten their relationship. And yet Jules considers Ash her best friend and is supportive of her when difficulties arise, and she maintains a friendship with Ethan, too, who, as it turns out, has more integrity than the others.

Class considerations are also at play after one of their group is sexually assaulted and she accuses her former boyfriend, Goodman. His family and friends, including Jules, rally behind him, believing that his accuser is crying wolf.  Instead of holding Goodman accountable and ensuring that he turns up for his court appearance, his privileged Manhattan family quietly allow him to abscond to Iceland, then visiting and supporting him there. Ash's feminism stops short when blood ties are threatened. And Jules's usual discernment fails her here. Despite the clot of resentment that she often feels toward this family, she does not want to be excluded from the "interestings." She therefore buries any reservations she might have about the official family story. I wondered whether Wolitzer would have written this episode differently and made it the centerpiece of her novel had she published The Interestings in 2018 when the #MeToo movement was changing the conversation around sexual assault.

The Female Persuasion is a much more political novel in its exploration of gender politics and corporate corruption, which are placed in the larger context of the highs and lows of relationships, a distinctive characteristic of Wolitzer's writing. The novel is about navigating the challenges of college and finding one’s way in the world and about how youthful friendships and romances can be threatened in adulthood through life circumstances, including betrayal. Its most powerful thread is the lure and pitfalls of a relationship between an influential feminist powerhouse and her adoring acolyte, which demonstrates how youthful activism can slip into corporate pragmatism and early ideals can be abandoned for the sake of preserving power. In this charged environment, loyalty counts above everything else. In short, The Female Persuasion explores the complicated landscape of contemporary intergenerational feminism.

The author with the cover of her 2018 novel. (Photo: Riverhead/Nina Subin)

Wolitzer's twelfth novel begins with a campus assault that is reminiscent of Kirby Dick's 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground when a fraternity brother aggressively gropes Greer Kadetsky at a party in 2006. She is a freshman at Ryland, a middling liberal-arts college, disappointed she is not at Yale with her boyfriend, Cory Pinto, because her benign and indifferent parents failed to submit her financial-aid forms. Already unhappy with them, Greer seethes with rage over the assault more toward the administration than toward her assailant (who, as it turns out, is a serial sexual perpetrator), because of its lenient treatment of him. Her smoldering anger, combined with her budding friendship with a lesbian activist named Zee Eisenstat, set the previously unpoliticized Greer on her own feminist path.

When Greer hears a talk given by Faith Frank, a feminist icon who bears a strong resemblance to Gloria Steinem, she is overwhelmed by the force of Faith's warmth and charisma. In her thin, mousey voice, she manages to ask a question about misogyny so quietly that Faith can barely hear her. But afterward they encounter each other in the restroom, and Faith listens sympathetically and gives Greer her business card. For Greer it’s like an amulet, “a reminder not to stay hot-faced and tiny-voiced.” This encounter changes the course of her life and marks the beginning of a mentorship that directs her for the next decade and makes her determined to become the kind of person worthy of Faith's trust in her. Greer's belief in Faith bears some resemblance to what Jules experiences in The Interestings when she is first admitted at summer camp into a group of people whom she perceives as polished and learned.

Faith is the subject of a long flashback chapter in which Wolitzer astutely illuminates us on the origins of her feminism: her need to escape an overly protective family, her experience as a cocktail waitress in Las Vegas and the wretched abortion experience of her best friend, and her youthful activism during the Vietnam protests. Later she becomes the author of a famous 1980s feminist bestseller which argues that women should use their "innate gentleness" and their collaborative spirit to transform corporate culture. Currently, she is editor-in-chief of Bloomer magazine, “the scrappier, less famous little sister to Ms.After graduation, when Greer arrives for an employment interview, Faith informs her that the magazine is closing but offers her a job at a new enterprise she is starting up. With backing from an old friend, a venture capitalist of less-than-sterling reputation, Faith is starting a feminist foundation that will sponsor conferences to provide concrete help for women around the world. She still believes in sisterhood but its implications for both Faith and Greer, as well as for Greer's friendship with Zee, do not become clear until much later in the novel.

The 2017 Women's March on Washington DC. (Photo: Getty)

In the meantime, cracks begin to emerge in Greer's love relationship with Cory. Though he was once a “twin rocket ship” rising beside her, his career is derailed when his family suffers a tragedy. Abandoning a high-flying consultancy career in Manila to care for his mother at home in the States, he embraces domestic responsibilities in a manner that might suggest that he is a “big feminist,” as Greer’s mother later calls him. Despite his own debilitating personal issues, which are deeply distressing to Greer, Cory quietly goes about his life making a difference for his mother and replacing her at a job, usually performed by poor working women, that would have been inconceivable for him before the tragedy.

Inevitably, the adulation that Greer feels toward Faith curdles into disillusionment. Even before their final break, Greer begins to question the value of the celebrity dimension of the foundation and whether it is really making a real difference for women in the developing world. When she finds her voice to challenge Faith about corporate negligence, not only Faith's integrity but also Greer's is called into question. Although Wolitzer generally writes with compassion about her characters she does not shy away from skewering both Faith and Greer for their treacheries. But she is kinder to Greer, who attempts to mend her betrayal of her best friend.

If Faith initially reminds the reader of Gloria Steinem, she morphs into a Hillary Clinton stand-in; the reader will associate the dodginess of Faith's foundation with the controversy that swirled around the Clinton Foundation. When Wolitzer extends her novel into 2019, acknowledging the Trump era, as “the big terribleness,” and the Women's March that followed the President's inauguration, nowhere does she mention the woman whom Trump ran against. (In her defense, she does not name the president either.) Perhaps she believed that her novel would become too polemical if she introduced Clinton by name, since she has become a lightning rod for both abiding respect and venomous hatred.

Besides, feminism for Wolitzer is less about grand public acts and more about the individuals who escape public attention by quietly undertaking unremarkable, private acts that have a direct, positive impact on individual lives. I have already mentioned the sacrifice that Cory makes; Wolitzer also offers moving chapters about Zee when she becomes a high school teacher in a tough Chicago neighborhood, working with unmotivated students and their passel of problems, a position that leads to a career counseling trauma survivors that offers her new insight: “Now her work life was political in some deep and consistent way, she thought, because she entered the homes of struggling people, and saw what their lives were like.” Earlier she says to Greer, "I think there are two kinds of feminists, the famous ones and everyone else, all the people who quietly do what they are supposed to do." She and Cory represent that kind of feminism. It is uncertain whether Greer, who by the end has published a book of her own about feminism and enjoys the applause of fans, is emblematic of their below-the-limelight way or is a mini-version of the woman she once most admired. Wolitzer's final depiction of Greer as an ambivalent character  which mirrors Greer's own ambivalence toward Faith  is one of the great strengths of her novel.

Photo: Keith Penner
 Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. His website is www.thatlineofdarkness.com.

No comments:

Post a Comment