Prep: A Novel/the Last of Her Kind/envy: A Novel
Day-Macleod, Deirdre, Women's Studies Quarterly
CURTIS SITTENFELD'S PREP: A NOVEL, NEW YORK: RANDOM HOUSE, 2005
SIGRID NUNEZ'S THE LAST OF HER KIND, NEW YORK: FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX, 2005
KATHRYN HARRISON'S ENVY: A NOVEL, NEW YORK: RANDOM HOUSE, 2005
I am haunted currently by the voice of Kate Moss plaintively singing background-"Is she more beautiful than me?"-on the notorious Babyshambles CD, on the single "La Belle et La Bête." Almost no one has actually listened to the music itself, but many of us have seen the videotape of Kate snorting coke in the studio during the recording sessions. In the grainy footage the waifish beauty who earns nine million dollars a year hunches over a mirror in a more graceful version of the posture of any foolish abuser of street drugs. Perhaps Kate was in the studio to do drugs or to lend support to her rather unfamous (except by association with her) boyfriend, or perhaps it was to venture into her new career as rock-and-roller. Whatever her reasons, Moss's artistic efforts have garnered her very little in the way of critical attention, while the video, with the production values of a film made by a chemically impaired cameraperson surreptitiously shooting with a cheap camera hidden in a shopping bag, had its three minutes of fame.
So why is it newsworthy when the "troubled" supermodel dates the drug addict rock-and-roller and succumbs to her own addiction? In this country, where there seems to be an unlimited amount of "reality" on all our two hundred cable channels (our own twisted mirror to demonstrate what we can feel better or worse than, for example, Wife Swap or American Idol), the idea that beautiful Kate of the billboards and glossy pages is lacking something gives us more than a little pleasure. We get to stop coveting her perfect skin, her fortune, her slenderness, and her fame. We can imagine that all Kate really needs is a nice house, a few more kids, an appreciation of the stability of our reality. Our workaday dullness becomes enviable.
That's the way it is with envy. We envy our neighbors, our TV stars, and our coworkers, and if we are lucky, others envy us. (Certainly in places like Bosnia and Darfur, we are envied). To experience envy, though, is to admit a lack. To have it all is to be enviable, but not to envy. Lack is what we wish on Kate and her ilk. We love to hear the tales of the poor little rich kid, the fucked-up rock-and-roller, the boring mogul who has no time to raise her kids; when we find ourselves lacking, we look for a way to find someone else who is also lacking.
When it comes to writing novels, however, portraying lack is a difficult task. The character who envies others is often a watered-down rendition of the other, a reflection rather than a character in her own right. And unless she acts in some particularly regrettable and despicable fashion (though often also admirable, at least for me when I was a teen despising the hideous tedium of the good-girl path) like Becky Sharp or Scarlett O'Hara, she can seem less interesting than those around her. Doubly damned, a character who envies, without acting upon her envy, frustrates the reader. But the writer who dares to have her creation act in an envious fashion must be certain that she has her reader's support: either the reader understands that envy and empathizes sufficiently with the character to read on, or merely dislikes a whining cipher. It's a far easier strategy to paint the pauper as morally superior to the prince and allow the prince to carry the show as we paupers look on, our noses pressed to the glass.
Fitzgerald's famous assertion "The rich are different" was apocryphally countered by Hemingway's "Yes, Scott. They have more money." But if the rich are different, it isn't congenital; not nature, but nurture. It's prep school that gives the children of the wealthy a good percentage of all the nurturance they are going to get in their formative years and shapes them into the future royalty of industry, media, and kingdoms. …