by KARA VANDERBIJL
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)