Eat grass

Jenny Turner

  • The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank
    Viking, 274 pp, £9.99, July 1999, ISBN 0 670 88300 X

The other day, I went to Waterstone’s in the Charing Cross Road to buy a copy of The Rules, the notoriously neo-conservative American dating manual which was a huge hit when it was first published in 1995. My excuse was that ‘The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing’, the title story in Melissa Bank’s short-story collection, has a Rules epigraph, and contains several Rules discussions, and is to some extent a Rules critique. On my way, I noticed that self-help books are kept next to philosophy, and when you see them close together, you notice how very much they are about the same great themes: death (Coping with Bereavement by Hamish McIlwraith), angst (Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers), the limits of reason (Edward de Bono, The Five-Day Course in Thinking). The do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do drive in Western culture is indeed ancient, and has surprisingly widespread roots.

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing is Melissa Bank’s first book. It comes to Britain from America, where it was compared to Lorrie Moore and Friends and Bridget Jones and Ally McBeal. In other words, a collection of seven carefully crafted literary short stories is being compared – Lorrie Moore apart – to two television sitcoms and a dashed-off novel based on a newspaper column soon to be a major feature film. And Lorrie Moore apart, the comparisons aren’t helpful. They’re what the industry wants Melissa Bank’s book to be rather than what it is. Dizzy women coming up for 30 who cannot hook themselves a husband are where it is at, apparently. Movies, advice manuals, television ads, newspaper think-pieces: the medium is not important, and neither does it seem to matter much whether we’re talking fiction or fact.

Five of Melissa Bank’s stories feature the same heroine, a young woman called Jane Rosenal. The first two Jane stories are classical middle-class American Eastern seaboard tales of teenage nostalgia, with penny loafers and sailing expeditions and little clams. The middle two are transitional, with a much-older-man boyfriend who looks out for the now twenty-something heroine and pan-fries her favourite soft-shell crabs. In the last one, the title story and the one with the Rules critique, Jane at 30-plus seems to be a different person almost, mouthy and menschlich: there will be more on this topic later on. The tale positioned at the book’s very centre, ‘The Best Possible Light’, focuses on a different heroine entirely. And one is written in the second-person ‘you’ voice, like Lorrie Moore’s first book, Self-Help.

The nicest thing about this book is the epigraphs. There are lots, taken from the advice manuals on which the great American character was built: Twentieth-Century Typewriting; Amy Vanderbilt’s Book of Etiquette; The Sailor’s Handbook; Junior Girl Scout Handbook; The Rules. ‘While home is the place where you can relax and be yourself, this doesn’t mean that you can take advantage of the love and affection other members of the family have for you,’ reads the typing primer; you can see it in
cross-stitches, can’t you? Benjamin Franklin would be proud. ‘It’s easy to be clean on the outside,’ murmurs a demonic Shirley Temple in baggy shorts and lanyard. ‘All you need is soap and water and a scrubbing brush. It’s much harder to be clean on the inside.’ Among all this awful sit-up-straight-missy stuff, it’s a shock to come across Betty Friedan, from The Feminine Mystique (1963): ‘The only way for a woman, as for a man, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own.’

The stories attached, however, are less ironic than their epigraphs might suggest. They have a curiously sheltered and olde-worlde quality, charming in a way, but also odd. In the first story, Jane is 14, the daughter of a Pennsylvania neurologist, holidaying with her family in a rented house on the New Jersey shore. Her 20-year-old brother has brought home a girlfriend eight years his senior, beautiful, elegant and rather grand. It isn’t the age gap, or sex or class, or anything expected which spoils their relationship, but something gentler and subtler, the sort of failing which is constitutive of being human, but which we don’t get around to noticing because of things like cruelty, disease, malice, want, crashing around and drowning them out:

Other people might not try as hard as I did to understand [my brother]. I was always on his side, no matter what. My parents were, too. All he really had to do with us was show up. More had been expected of him as Julia’s boyfriend and at that party. More would be expected of him everywhere. I didn’t know what had happened between him and Julia. It scared me to think that my brother had failed at loving someone. I had no idea myself how to do it.

I was always on his side, no matter what. My parents were, too: if that’s the Rosenal family dynamic, it’s unlikely that what follows is going to produce a lot of wild drama. And so indeed it proves. Bank writes very nicely about this fresh-painted world, sunny and stable with a misting of loss and sadness in the well-balanced, good-enough way. There’s an interesting bit in the second story in which our heroine finds herself forced into a game of strip-poker with people more sophisticated than she is. She’s under threat, she’s in a spot, and so she thinks like this: ‘I try to remember crisis advice I’ve heard: from my mother, on boys out of control, Call us and we’ll come and get you; from my high-school gym teacher, on averting rape, Go down on all fours and eat grass.’ The point is not the content of the advice, but the warm, steady feeling you must get from being able to think of authority figures you respect.

But there’s a limitation to this sort of writing, this sort of thinking. It’s so sturdy and imperturbable, it misses out on a lot. In the first story, for example, there’s a bit in which Jane the rebellious teenager stomps out of the living-room, like this: ‘While Mother hostessed and Girlfriend guested, Younger Sister stood up. When there was a pause in their nicing, I made my mouth move smileward: I’d love to stay and talk, but I have to go shoot some heroin now.’ Aha! I thought (this moment comes on page 9). So that’s what’s really going on! Except that it wasn’t. There is no more heroin at all. Some pages on, Jane and her chum go to a teenage beach-party, at which they are offered hashish and strong drink. ‘Remember the three Ds from detox: don’t, don’t, don’t,’ her friend says brightly. Aha! I perked up again. But no: turns out it was only a joke from a good, wise, clever adolescent who has already made her own sensible decision. Which is terrific of course, and admirable and indeed enviable, except that such jokes are based on an absolute confidence that such things can’t happen to the teller and her audience, or anyone like them.

The second-person-singular story is called ‘You Could Be Anyone’, where ‘you’ is a young woman undergoing treatment for breast cancer. ‘You don’t want anyone mistaking you for latecomer disciples of Heaven’s Gate’ is an example of its bright, lipsticky attitude. ‘Heaven is the last place you want to go, spaceship or no.’ It then proceeds with ‘you’ picturing ‘the aberrant cells … as sinister and black-clad, smoking cigarettes as they cluster in the dark S&M club of your body’, which may look like a hip and brave and humorous way of putting it, but actually is quite odd. Sinister, black-clad, cigarette-smoking? How can a woman writer in late 20th-century Manhattan be so narrow-minded and square?

As Bank’s stories carry Jane Rosenal across the thirties threshhold, a strange thing seems to happen to her story. She loses her subtlety of observation and emotion. She loses her flair for epiphanies and quiet little shifts. Instead, she makes jokes and then cackles at them. She turns into Doris from the television version of Fame: ‘My best friend is getting married. Her wedding is only two weeks away, and I still don’t have a dress to wear. In desperation, I decide to go to Loehmann’s in the Bronx. My friend Donna offers to come with me, saying she needs a bathing suit, but I know a mercy mission when I see one.’ Perhaps this is just what happens to a woman if she finds herself in her thirties without having managed to hook a man for life? Well of course it isn’t, except that it is what publishers and film producers and Fox Television in particular seem to want you to think will happen. Which for a dismaying number of women writers at the moment seems to amount to much the same thing.

This is also the story which is headed by a quote from The Rules. ‘When you’re with a man you like, be quiet and mysterious, act ladylike, cross your legs and smile. Don’t talk so much. Wear sheer black pantyhose and hike up your skirt.’ So off she goes to the party, and she meets a man she likes, and he likes her. Desperate not to lose him this time – as opposed to an implicit many millions of times before – she buys a copy of How to Meet and Marry Mr Right, a barely-fictionalised version of you-know-what. ‘Their main advice is to play hard to get. Basically, it’s a guide to manipulation.’ The authors, ‘Faith … a reserved, blow-dry blonde’ and ‘Bonnie, a girly-girl, a giggler with deep dimples’, become like guardian angels to our heroine and representative as she begins dating her man.

When The Rules was first published, it was sold as a shocking riposte to having-it-all feminism, a way of getting back that lovely Fifties-housewife ‘feminine mystique’ which Betty Friedan had attempted for ever to explode. ‘The depressing part,’ Jane’s friend Donna says, and as is the received wisdom among those with an interest in the topic, ‘is that you know it’ll work.’ Oh it will, will it? So where’s the evidence? Did I miss the randomised double-blind trial? Of all the things which are annoying about ‘Rules girls’, the most annoying of all is this way of buying into the pretence. It’s degrading and undignified, like dressing up in a fairy costume when you aren’t a little girl. In reality – and as is obvious to everybody, with the serious and worrying exception of people who are genuinely depressed – The Rules is just a fictional structure in which it can be fun to spend a bit of time.

Or, to put the same point in grander language, The Rules is an amusing jumble of a document which contains, almost in spite of itself, a few deep and valuable truths – though expressed in a nasty fetishised way – and a great deal of the most grievous rubbish, from a tradition at least as old as the Malleus Maleficarum: ‘When you do the Rules, he treats you like a fragile, delicate flower. He cups your face, rubs your back when you’ve had a hard day, and strokes your hair as if it were silk. You don’t have to worry about being battered.’ As with the Malleus, the question of whether or not it can be said to ‘work’ is just about the least interesting question which can be asked of it. Unless of course you are part of a society which in some ways continues to believe in magic, against the evidence and for reasons of its own. As we are about to see.

So Jane tells Robert about how she lives with a poodle, and wants to open a dog museum: ‘It could have interactive displays of squirrels … And a gallery of scents.’ Robert replies that he’s a cartoonist, and accompanies her on a walk with her poodle, ‘and says what I always do: “Can I say hello to your dog?”’ So he’s cute, he likes everything she likes, he says the same things as her – maybe he actually is her, in a taller, thinner, male version? This isn’t love, or even a proper adult friendship. It’s a narcissistic and rather childish female-fantasy cuddly-wuddly go-on-be-nice-to-yourself chocolate fudge. (‘MB lives in New York City with her labrador retriever, Maybelline,’ it said on the advance proof sent out to prospective reviewers. I am pleased to see that this has vanished from the finished copy, very properly replaced with a dedication to some human beings instead.) Anyway, Robert and Jane are clearly made for each other. So what is standing in their way? Only that she’s a Rules girl, and every time he tries to get closer to her, she has Faith and Bonnie nagging away in her ear. So Robert gets all hurt, and off he goes in a hump. The paradoxical thing about such anti-Rules critiques, as you can see, is that they can only purport to show that the Rules don’t work after having established that they do, sort of. He asked her out in the first place, didn’t he? Yes, I suppose he did! And he persisted, didn’t he, even though she kept him hanging on? Yes, yes, yes, you know and I know that this is not the way life works at all, and neither is it interesting, and nor is it an authentic rendition of love and romance, late 20th-century style or any other. It’s shallow, superstitious, McGuffinised nonsense. Which is what of course makes it magical, if you are a fan of recent Hollywood hem-hem romantic comedies like Sleepless in Seattle and The Truth about Cats and Dogs.

You may not be surprised to hear that Francis Ford Coppola has bought the film rights to this story, and has hired Bank to write the screenplay. My Hollywood source says that Coppola these days is more interested in his vineyard, and that he has probably bought this story for his daughter Sofia, the one who took over Winona Ryder’s part in Godfather III. So perhaps it can be said that the Rules do work, sort of. They may not get you a husband, but they can probably manage a swimming pool in LA.