This time it’s a pair of books about groups of girlfriends tryna make it in their twenties: Jennifer Knoll’s Girls in White Dresses and J Courtney Sullivan’s Commencement. I still can’t tell whether these are good books or not. They’re ridiculously compelling and emotional, but they’re also stacked high with cliches. For instance, in Commencement (the better novel of the two), the characters are all so simple: the delicate Southern belle; the down-to-earth boy-crazy Irish girl from Boston; the girl who’s perpetually mourning her dead mother; and the super-feminist man-hating hippy. And all the relationships are similarly one-note. Obviously the Southern belle’s parents are racist and homophobic. Obviously the troubled girl has an affair with her professor. Obviously the boy-crazy girl gets sexually assaulted. It’s not that it’s predictable, exactly. It’s just that when things happen, you’re like…well…is that it? There’s not more than that? There’s no complexity.
But, on the other hand, the books have such awesome scope. It’s amazing how much stuff happens, how many characters there are, how many settings there are, how many thoughts and life-plans and conversations and events. So many events! There’s so much richness of incident in both of these books. L It’s fascinating the way these books choose how to drill down and focus on one little thing. For instance, in Girls in White Dresses there’s the chapter where one of the girls dates this guy who starts ignoring her because he gets a job on the Obama campaign. Or the girl who considers having an affair with another associate at her law office. Or the girl whose sister visits and whose niece, after seeing her apartment, starts to worry that she might be poor. You know, poor like all those homeless people on the street.
Nothing here is particularly shocking or out of the ordinary, but the sense of scope is awe-inspiring. So many things are happening that it really does feel like you’re seeing somebody grow up. And I can’t help thinking that the cliches are almost necessary here. Because obviously a book could be twice as long and have a similar scope. Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings for instance is a much better book that has much less cliched characters and covers many more years…but it’s also much longer than either of these books, so it doesn’t convey that same sensation of skipping over the surface of a life. In order to achieve this effect you need a certain compression, but you can’t just compress. Paradoxically, books tend to feel the most expansive right at the moment when they’re exploding a tiny incident and making it take much more space than you think it ought to. I’m reminded of the Sarashina Diary, for instance, which is an amazing journal by a Heian-era lady in Japan. This woman over the course of her life serves in court, travels, gets married, has kids, and is widowed. But she covers all of those things in asides of just a few words, and then, in her diary, she spends ten pages talking about meeting this man on this one snowy night and exchanging a few words with him (he’s not even a lover or anything–he’s just a man).
But it’s only possible to practice this kind of compression and explosion if your character is, to a certain extent, cliched. We could not read the Sarashina Diary if we didn’t assume, to some extent, that her life resembled that of a typical court lady. Maybe this is true in general. Books work by showing us the deviations from what is expected; but they can only do that if we start off, in the first place, with something in the way of expectations.