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Entries in kara vanderbijl (70)

Tuesday
Oct022012

In Which We Ask For Your Advice In This Matter

Affective Disorder

by KARA VANDERBIJL

The Singles
by Meredith Goldstein
Plume, 256 pp

I dove into Meredith Goldstein’s first novel The Singles the same way I dive into her advice column: with about two or three days’ worth of empathy in reserve and a giant glass of wine — hoping, as always, to catch thinly-veiled glimpses of Meredith’s psyche behind the trite truisms and quasi-sage guidance. I was not disappointed. By the end I was fairly tingling with glee.

By day the author of the column for The Boston Globe, “Love Letters” and by night the sultry voice on a local Boston radio station giving wee-hour guidance, Meredith Goldstein remains somewhat of an enigma. Her quotidian web appearance, which takes up the space of about five two- to three-sentence paragraphs, is sparse. Otherwise, she runs a short blog and an average Twitter feed, neither of which feature her golden locks as much as we would like, although the former does reveal that she shares her living space with a cotton candy machine. For a woman who has made a career dealing with internet oversharers, she is remarkably private, which in the digital age is unforgivable.

The Singles finds Beth “Bee”, a bride-to-be, at her wits’ end: although she has generously given all of her guests the option to bring a date, five of her college friends refused to check “+1” on their RSVPs and are coming to the party unaccompanied. Now, 48 hours before the wedding, she is standing in front of a whiteboard experiencing a nervous breakdown because she doesn’t know where to put these poor, unfortunate souls who are, according to her, as “adrift in her seating chart as they are in life”. The first chapter ends with a brief prayer of gratefulness that she will never again have to worry about attending parties on her own.

While the rest of the book will unfold in the moments leading up to and during Bee’s nuptials, we won’t return to her narrative: apparently her only function is to dismiss, worry about, and judge her acquaintances for the fundamental crime of which she has so recently been acquitted: being single.

And that’s the crux of the novel’s conflict, if you can believe it. Since I’m wary of any social function that, as a rule, excludes one group of people or another, I wish I could say that Goldstein’s novel deals with the so-called “social dilemma” of going solo to a wedding with lighthearted satire. But it doesn’t. Like her fictional bride-to-be, Goldstein seems to have an issue with people who, by choice or by misadventure, happen to be alone. So she spends the rest of the book introducing a motley crew of old college friends and explaining the reasons behind their woeful celibacy.

First, there’s Hannah. This girl is the unsung protagonist of the book, if the number of chapters dedicated to her point of view are any indication. (Meredith pulls the ol’ G.R.R. Martin and names each chapter after the character whose point of view it will explore. Like Martin, she quickly loses the ability to keep track of the people whose lives she is effectively ruining.) Hannah is a casting agent in New York City who mentally replaces every person she’s ever known by the famous actor she’d choose to play them in a summer blockbuster. We’ve all played this game at some point, but when I read that Hannah would like to be interpreted by Kristen Stewart, my reserve of empathy began to run dangerously low. Let’s not forget that this takes place about a dozen pages into the novel.

Hannah is single because she’s still hung up on Tom, her college boyfriend, with whom she ended things two years prior. This bridesmaid really doesn’t give a shit about her friend getting married and is simply using the occasion to see and be seen by her ex, in the hope that he’ll regret his decision and come running back to her. Then we meet Vicki, whose depression is reaching such dangerous heights that her shrink figures she is suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and prescribes a lamp. She carries it around in an old guitar case when she’s traveling. Let’s think about that for a moment. Okay.

Phil's relationship with his mother borders on the oedipal, and he freaks out any women who try to get close to him. Rob is addicted to prescription medicine since his girlfriend left him; his only joy is his epileptic dog Lizzie and the possibility that Hannah, whom he briefly screwed in college, will realize what she missed when she passed him over for Tom. Finally, there’s Joe, Bee’s estranged uncle, who had a wild night of passion with another Vicki in Las Vegas and who now can’t think of anything but getting SAD Vicki and her lamp into bed.

The Singles takes an unexpected turn for the even worse. Lizzie the dog gets trapped underneath one of the Rob’s IKEA armoires and dies, and after burying her in the backyard, he decides to declare his undying love for Hannah. Vicki ends up having sex on the floor of the country club with a man who had up to that point barely appeared in the novel; we could care less when they get caught. Joe cries in disappointment, then probably finds another Vicki in another state. Hannah hits on 90% of the people in the book. Two vanity license plates are described in detail.

You should probably think about that one for a minute, too. Okay.

Each character is supposed to represent a tiny slice of the reader; never mind that they are somewhat unbelievable and mostly one-dimensional. The token alcoholic and the stereotypical nice guy will not make much progress over the course of the story; they are more of an object lesson, each one of them a problem that has grown two legs, a head and genitals and is walking around trying to find disaster so they can teach us a lesson. But it’s not a stretch to imagine that they are also pieces of Meredith’s past.

Like her novel, “Love Letters” reveals Meredith’s tendency to alternately conflate or compartmentalize people with their circumstances. A young woman shares with Meredith that her paramour cancelled on her three times, although they had two fantastic dates. She’s distraught. Did he not feel the spark between them? She takes to her keyboard with barely restrained wrath and writes him a long e-mail detailing her disappointment. To her great surprise, he only responds with a text and refuses to reply to any of her subsequent messages. Is this guy worth her time? Did she overreact?

Quoth Meredith, “He wasn’t a great guy. He cancelled three times. Three. You wrote him an honest letter about your issues and he responded with a text. That’s not so great.”

I would definitely agree that “overreact” was not the correct word to associate with this young woman’s behavior. Two-year-olds overreact, as do teenagers. George W. Bush overreacted. The word could certainly describe Tumblr’s response to Todd Akin’s recent comments. But “overreacting” is certainly not this young, jilted woman’s problem. No. She is so far away from “Planet Overreaction” that it can’t even be called a planet anymore. The correct word to associate with her behavior is “delusional.” It has a better ring to it.

On Planet Meredith (you can observe it on Tuesdays passing behind the moon), however, it is just common sense to write a young man a long, detailed letter about how sucky he is. How dare he decide, after two whole dates, that he doesn’t want to go out with this girl anymore? They made out! They had the best date ever! Y u no call her?!

Even more endearing is her response to an aspiring stalker, a man whose desperation to convince a woman of his feelings trumps everything including his current relationship and, well, felony. Rather than addressing his decision to lie in wait at the poor woman’s apartment for her to return, Meredith instead turns all of her fury on his potential cheat. “My dear letter writer, where is your girlfriend? Do you have a significant other? Are you officially single?” By all means, loiter creepily in front of your crush’s apartment, but only if you’re single! If you’re single anything goes! Being single gives you the right to hide under umbrellas on a woman’s stoop! Where is your girlfriend, where is your girlfriend, where is your girlfriend?

We have been left to guess what skeletons Meredith hides in her closet, what juicy details she’s been using to bait unsuspecting suitors in her online dating profiles. M. Goldstein, journalist. 30s. Roxbury, MA resident (talks like Matt Damon). Syracuse graduate. Dog lover? Coffee drinker. Seeking a man who won’t cheat, like, stand her up, leave her at the altar, text over dinner, become addicted to prescription meds, work at the same office, argue with her parents, or lose the proverbial spark.

I can see her now, blonde locks in disarray, discovering the lipstick marks on a shirt collar, stood up at her favorite restaurant, stumbling upon a carelessly flagrant text. Dear Meredith. Your obsession with cheating, being cheated on, wanting to cheat, helping someone’s partner cheat, listening to someone talk about being cheated on, eating Cheetos clearly points to some repressed trauma. Is this some form of strange catharsis? What color is your SAD lamp?

When a book or film begins to resemble a medieval morality play or a soap opera more than anything else, it is generally a sign that the author is attempting to use their art to illustrate or justify a faulty worldview. But instead of using human experience to draw out questions that challenge and inform, these artists try to answer questions with situations that, while not altogether implausible, still end up making a mockery of the complexity of human emotions.

This kind of art is not unlike an advice column.

The Singles is pretty much the spitting image of Meredith’s day job. She’s Queen Bee, arranging her pawns on the board according to a single rule: if you are not in a romantic relationship, your life has lost all of its meaning. Single people make their friends’ lives difficult. They have to be accommodated, humored, cared for, harassed until they get a date, and then pressured until they commit. Single people have unrealistic expectations of relationships that must be beaten out of them. They must be sad, horny, in a state bordering on mental illness if they’re not actively looking for somebody on whom to dump their reserve of affection. They’ve got to move out, move on, move up, move in if they want to have any chance of happiness in this life.

This is one story I’m glad to report is left unresolved. If all of the unfortunate singles had happily paired off, I would have started a cult celebrating the fact that Nora Ephron’s spirit condescended to come rest inside Meredith. (By the way, somebody already optioned this little tale for the big screen.) Instead, the story simply ends with Hannah, Vicki and Rob piling into a car after the wedding and driving off to New York City to begin a new life together. While this isn’t exactly original, the possibility of a menage a trois livens it up.

Advice columns tend to separate people from their problems, taking that Break Up or those Awful Parents or Worry About the Future and idealizing them, isolating them, detaching them from the people who experience them. But there’s no such thing as a problem without a context. You don’t “have” a problem, even though our language only permits that formulation; it’s not the flu or a common cold.

You live a problem, and sometimes you outlive it. Not infrequently, what you perceive to be a problem is just a circumstance with which you are unhappy. Perhaps you expected life to be different, but your expectations were terribly shortsighted, so the gap between what you think you need and what you actually got causes you discomfort.

It’s odd, really, that there is something inherently uncomfortable about approaching a stranger for help, but that it’s perfectly normal to expose yourself to the entire world in an advice column. There’s something definitely appealing about the community of it, because we’d all like to believe in goodness between people. But is that really what this is about? Should I be getting a warm feeling because somebody checked their email, blasted out a short reply to a question, and posted it? Would they have answered the same way if they knew the person? Are there terms and conditions to advice columns? Put two of my friends in the same situation and I’d most likely give them completely different advice on how to handle it. Guidance may come in petite and tall sizes, but it still needs tailoring to fit right.

These sometimes heartfelt, sometimes bitter, sometimes comical words of guidance are not so much for the person asking for them as they are for the lurkers. If you could read about somebody’s pain and legitimately feel compassion and perhaps learn a little bit about the world and not make a judgment and come away a better person, then maybe it would be justified. But advice columns exist to attract people like Bee, who takes a glance at five unattached names on a whiteboard and thinks deeply, secretly, shamefully: “I’m so glad it’s not me.”

Kara VanderBijl is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about the romantic deviant. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her work on This Recording here.

"I Missed You Listening" - Yoko Ono, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore (mp3)

"I Never Told You, Did I" - Yoko Ono, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore (mp3)

Thursday
Sep132012

In Which We Study The Romantic Deviant

Subtle Layers

by KARA VANDERBIJL

"Up until 10 years ago it was legal for teachers to slap their students across the face," is the most accurate description of the French school system. No matter when you tell the story, it is always "only 10 years ago" that this brutality was legal, the monstrosity of it appalling to anyone unfamiliar with Gallic mores, the thrill of it fresh in our young minds as we filed into classrooms chewing forbidden gum, a single headphone dangling out of an ear turned to the back wall.

I began in a neighborhood  middle school, all gray brick and black wrought-iron fence. The boys in my fifth-grade class drew pictures of stick figures performing oral sex on one another. At recess, all the stalls in the girls' bathroom were shut tight, cigarette smoke curling from underneath and over the doors. A group of my peers asked me whether or not we had rice in America. On several occasions, it got so rowdy in math class that the instructor could only stand in the front, twitching uncontrollably. 

After I read a passage from Frankenstein out loud in French class, the teacher looked at me indulgently and told me I'd be a much better reader if I didn't have such an awful foreign accent.

We looked forward to lycée, high school, the brain-melting difficulties of which had been described to us in detail since the very beginning of our education. Our teachers effervesced with barely-contained glee. "Just wait until you get there! You won't know what hit you." Talks about electives sparked up among junior highers who, for the last four years, had spent most of their time calculating how to sneak an extra miniature baguette in the lunch line. 

Most of us had been studying Spanish for the last two grades, had even been taken on a school trip to Barcelona. Our teacher had given us very little vocabulary to cope with what awaited us there: host families that served dinner at midnight, the absence of hot water in our showers or a bidet of any kind, the desire to describe a pet guinea pig. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the contours of the language, and the continued study of it in high school — plus an additional language, perhaps Italian? — seemed a wise choice since we had been told our heads would almost certainly fall from our shoulders with the combined weight of our future intellectual responsibilities and our inability to perform them with such miniscule minds. I'd learned French and could say hello in Spanish. How difficult could another one be?

I thought I'd attend the closest high school: another drab affair that turned out more chain-smoking sixteen-year-olds than anything else. But after class one day my English teacher, a Madame Ginestet, took me aside. "You might want to look into this international school in Luynes, just outside of Marseille," she said, handing me a brochure. She explained that I'd not only be able to obtain a general French baccalaureate, but that I'd also be able to take history, geography, and literature classes in English. Along with her recommendation letter she handed me a stack of French books (including a Proust) and a note in her elegant script: Feel free to disregard any of these should they bore or discourage you.

Although the school at Luynes was public, I had to take an English competency exam to be admitted into the international section. Madame Ginestet promised that as a foreigner, I'd have no trouble getting in: the school had to accept as many native English speakers as possible to keep up its prestigious status. Our teachers were Cambridge-educated, a disparate group of Brits who I imagined kept to themselves in the staff room reading Shakespeare while their French colleagues smoked over coffee and plotted when they would next go on strike.

We were warned we'd have more work than the average high schooler, that we'd no doubt struggle during the first year, after which our place in the section would be under review. They handed out sheets of vocabulary we should master, books we should read, exercises we should complete. We were told we'd read T.S Eliot and The Great Gatsby. It was as if somebody had handed me a key to a secret garden where I might go lie in a fragrant meadow while everybody else pulled up weeds.

A pair of sisters taught Spanish at Luynes. Both were extremely strict, heavily perfumed and aside from their hair color, almost identical in appearance and teaching method, to the extent that I cannot remember which one I had in which grade. "El chicle en la papelera!" they'd welcome us. When we (in)voluntarily forgot about an assignment, it was customary for whichever sister to spend the first fifteen minutes of class yelling about our incompetency. "You will never make it through the baccalaureate exam," they spat, "you have no discipline, you are stupid, you are donkeys." Finally, completely exasperated, "Did anybody prepare the assignment?" Someone in the back would raise a timid hand. "Madame?" 

"En español," they'd snap.

I began to study Italian. It was an ill-advised decision — having had Spanish drilled into my psyche for the better part of two years, it was impossible, no matter how many times I read through a translation I had done, to catch all the els that should have been ils. There were days, in the beginning, when I crawled into the car and sat in the front seat with my ears ringing, unsure as to what language I should use to tell my father how my day had been.

Our Italian teacher was a laid-back gentleman who had difficulty drawing the line between student and friend and taught us nothing that we would not forget over the summer. The class almost always took place at that time in the afternoon when the sun was shining warm and golden through the windows and our carbohydrate-heavy cafeteria lunch was settling in for the night. He subjected us to medieval madrigals and weak Italian pop songs. In return, we asked him on an almost constant basis whether or not he had a girlfriend. When he gave in to the occasional bout of righteous wrath, we sat staring at our blank sheets of note paper submissively until he had finished. While much of my Spanish still lingers beneath the tips of my fingers, itching for a runny fountain pen to skip across paper in the subjunctive, my Italian has gone the way of all souvenirs you bring back from short, albeit pleasant, vacations: in the back of a dusty closet. I don't believe I could even count to ten if commanded to do so.

If ever in my life I attributed more power to words than I should have, any such inclination was beat out of me during those three years. At home we spoke English with a completely arbitrary smattering of French sifted in. At school I had already allowed myself to think completely in French, except in those classes which commanded my native Anglo attention; Spanish and Italian, however, I learned through the medium of French, and I am surprised to this day that I managed to understand anything at all. I mourn for the girl whose mind, although exhausted, although crammed with information, was then sharper than it had ever been and no doubt ever will be.


Everybody speculates on the various measures one can use to test fluency in a given language. Some claim that when you begin to dream in your second (or third, or fourth) language, you have mastered it. Others insist that you cannot call yourself a true speaker of it until you have captured its wit and laughed at its jokes. Still more assume that the truest measure of fluency is the comprehension of poetry. I am inclined to believe this, since I could not call myself fluent in French until I had understood all of Baudelaire's subtle layers.

The heart chooses its own tongue. Sometimes it is not the one you were born listening to, but rather one that you do not learn until later in life. On the day of my final oral exams in Italian, I stumbled through an unfamiliar text and attempted to translate it as well as I could under the disapproving gaze of an older gentleman who no doubt went home and grumbled about the indifference of teenagers to Dante's language. The Spanish flowed easier from my pen; all the verbs marched in unsion across the page, and as much as I had enjoyed the challenge I sighed in relief as I turned in my essays and left those two Romantic deviants in the yellow hallways of the school. I have not picked them up since. 

For a few years I believed my heart to be divided between English and French, equally enamored with both, admiring the technical beauty of the one and the ease of the other. I spoke long and fervently on the virtues of one of Baudelaire’s Spleen poems to a woman who nodded her head in approval despite the foreign flavor of my accent when I read it aloud. 

But when I arrived for my very last baccalaureate exam, one in English literature, my heart truly sang. I had not studied at all. The text was Othello’s speech at the beginning of Act V.ii, right before he smothers Desdemona, and I do not believe there are sweeter words in the English language. I read slowly, savoring them. I was asked questions to which I responded. I went on for much longer than I should have. I looked up at the faces of the examiners, who were both beaming, because I myself could not keep from smiling.

Francis Cabrel, a French folk singer, released an album entitled Hors Saison in 1999. My father had listened to it in the local Borders and, since we were moving to France in the next year and had grown tired of Celine Dion, bought two of the artist's albums. We listened to them in tandem with our Rosetta Stone software, proud when we could pick out a few words, even more excited when we'd unveil an entire sentence. As we struggled over the next decade to make the language ours, Cabrel's songs became very dear to me. Listening to them, I remembered what it was like not to understand, could laugh at the instances when simple phrases had eluded me. 

Cabrel's Je t'aimais, je t'aime, et je t'aimerai came up on shuffle the other day as I walked through the Loop to get to work. To my surprise (bittersweet), I stumbled over some of the simplest phrases, my lips moving clumsily, forming shapes to which they are no longer accustomed. 

Kara VanderBijl is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about Madeleine L'Engle. She tumbls here and twitters here.

"Je t'aimais, je t'aime et je t'aimerai" - Francis Cabrel (mp3)

"Hors Saison" - Francis Cabrel (mp3)

 

Friday
Aug242012

In Which We Cannot Read Anything On The Menu

New Cassette

by KARA VANDERBIJL

The twins came to the gate when we rang, riding bicycles that they had outgrown. James pedaled furiously, boy-knees reaching comical heights near his chin; his sister, Amy, lagged behind, her long denim skirt tangling around her shins, mousy brown ponytail swinging from side to side. Before she reached us she wobbled in a wide arc, turning back up the gravel driveway to the house while James unlocked the gate. Hailey let up the brake with a slight movement of her thin ankle.

The white car crawled down the driveway behind the eager bikers. Through spindly trees, the house appeared, long and squat. On the front porch, which was really just an expanse of pavement beyond the driveway, the twins’ mother appeared, dressed in colonial garb, down to a circle of lace pinned to the very top of her head. She balanced a white terrier on her hip. We remembered that it would soon be the Fourth.

“Well good morning, y’all!” she called. Like all Texan mothers I had already met and was yet to meet, she seemed larger than life: a caricature, rudely captioned with an oddly-capitalized axiom.

She had brewed coffee for me, although I told her I didn’t drink the stuff. It sat with fraternal sugar cubes, one brown, one white, on a silver tray in the middle of the children’s school table along with an ancient tape recorder and two pencils freshly sharpened. At a look from their mother, the twins sat obediently, notebooks crushed to their chests, blinking behind their glasses. She would not have me begin teaching, however, until I had (just as obediently) choked down the entire cup and refused another.

She only stood by, however, until we had reviewed the previous lesson: several repetitions of the alphabet, altogether too many slurred Bonjours, comment vas-tus and d’ou viens-tus, and a few eager Je m’appelle James, then retiring to the kitchen which, admittedly, was only separated by a piece of wall. Dishes rattled comfortably as I took the twins once again through the rudiments of the French tongue, some of which were new, most of which we had already learned last time, repeated ad infinitum, and committed to a tape for them to memorize in my absence. Upon my promptings, James launched unafraid into the most absurd Anglo-Gallic pidgin, while his sister remained absolutely silent until I asked her a question directly, to which she responded hesitantly but almost always accurately.

When we had exhausted a new lesson by repeating it, loudly, into the cassette, I told them stories (in English) about Louis XIV and Versailles, going to school so early in the morning that I left the house when the boulangers were pulling the first pan of fresh pastries out of the oven, what it was like to learn French at their age for the first time, not as a hobby, not as a mid-morning pastime, but as a necessity. It was this part that I couldn’t (didn’t have time to) communicate to them: the normalcy of it, the regularity of its illogical rules.

You learn quickly, as a transplant, what you must do to adapt. You can spend your time thinking about what you must make do with "now" compared to what you had "there". (As a transplant, then and there become one and the same thing. The past is a geography lesson.) Or, you can absolutely forget whatever you knew before and become someone different, bloom anew. This is easier for children, I think; like pruning a bush back, performing the necessary amputation results in greater growth. If you're young enough, this happens almost unconsciously. The twins were twelve when I taught them, the same age I had been when I left the United States, on that strange border between unselfconsciousness and intense, awkward awareness. Growing into your body, into a new sensual appreciation of the world, you feel each loss physically, as time transforms, too, into place.

The first time I ate in a restaurant in France it was 1999, just after Christmas, and we were in Lyon. My brother and I couldn’t read anything on the menu so we pointed to the word “hamburger” when the server asked us what we wanted. The whole trip has taken on a dreamlike haze but the moment those steaming patties of ground beef arrived on their very white plates — surrounded by rice and nothing else — stands out vividly. I cut into the meat with my knife and the slice pulled away with a squelch and blood seeped out from the raw inside onto the rice. 

“Oh!” exclaimed an expatriate, when she saw my face. “I forgot to tell you that you must ask for your hamburgers ‘well done’ here!”

When we had ended our month and a half summer session, the twins’ mother gave me a French press with which to brew my own coffee (“you must love it, since you grew up there!”) and drove me, along with her children and my friend Hailey, to a fancy new French restaurant on the other side of San Antonio. It wasn’t until that visit to Texas, after I had left France for good after living there for seven years, that I first tried snails and frog legs. I smiled bravely over the puff pastry and the butter garlic sauce and the truffle ravioli and the lobster. The waitress offered wine, which my hosts quickly declined, because they were good Baptists and it was Texas after all and not France, not home, not at all what I remembered, familiarly strange.

Kara VanderBijl is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about Madeleine L'Engle. She twitters here and tumbls here

"Lurk Underneath" - Trouble Books (mp3)

"Dead Bee In A Golden Bowl" - Trouble Books (mp3)

The new album from Trouble Books is entitled Concatenating Fields.