Sunday 24 June 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 and 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, deservingly 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 (romantic, friendship, parents and their offspring, and between mentors and acolytes); her penchant for fictionalizing a character or situations 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; the power of cults to prey upon the vulnerable; the 1980s AIDS crisis, and the 2008 financial crisis; and the quality of her writing that is by turns laced 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 artistic children 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 would one day create a famous television show à la The Simpsons, 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 but whose artistic aspirations and personal development are arrested by an exploitative banjo player who happened to be a friend of his mother. Two are the wealthy and beautiful twin siblings, Ash and Goodman Wolf. The ethereal Ash (the sister) would become a feminist theater director; Goodman’s suave charisma and his exalted position in the group confers 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 husband, Dennis, who comes from a more modest class background than many of Jules's friends when he challenges her obsessions and their pretensions. Jules remains envious of the gilded life that Ash and Ethan enjoy even as she learns about the deceit and the lies that will threaten that relationship. And yet Jules considers Ash her best friend and is supportive of her when difficulties arise, and she maintains a friendship with Ethan 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 over the alleged rape allegation. But 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, even 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 that is placed in the larger context of highs and lows of relationships, a distinctive characteristic of Wolitzer's writing. The novel is about navigating through the challenges of college and finding one’s way in the world and about how youthful friendships and romantic relationships can be threatened in adulthood through life circumstances and betrayal. Its most powerful thread is about the lure and pitfalls of a relationship between an influential feminist powerhouse and her adoring acolyte, and how youthful activism can slip into corporate pragmatism and the abandonment of earlier ideals 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 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 Greer's life and marks the beginning of a mentorship that directs her for the next decade in which she is 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 inThe Interestings when she was first admitted at a summer camp into a group 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 became 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 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. Once a “twin rocket ship” rising beside her, his career is derailed when his family suffers a tragedy. Abandoning a high-flying consultancy career to care for his mother, he leaves Manila to embrace 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 that are deeply distressing to Greer, Cory quietly go about his life making a difference for his mother and working 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 will curdle into disillusionment. Even before her final break with Faith, 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, the integrity of not only Faith but that of Greer 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. 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 in which 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 might argue that 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 made and 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 said 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  that mirrors Greer's own ambivalence toward Faith  is one of the great strengths of her novel. 


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