[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'Tough Girl' Fiction: Deadlier Than the Male

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'Tough Girl' Fiction: Deadlier Than the Male
New York Times Book Review, 4.8.22

ADOLESCENT confession time: I once threatened to kill the
novelist Dennis Cooper. (At least this will give me a leg
up on Dale Peck if ESPN2 ever talks Bud Light into
sponsoring the Xtreme Lit Crit Games.) My complaint:
Cooper's novels, full of the rapings and splatter-slaughter
of heavy-metal-loving young boys, take zero moral stand in
light of grim actualities. His books smack of old-fashioned
sexism, with boys swapped for women. So, 13 years ago,
amped on coffee and identity politics, I published a tiny
(and, well, really bad) manifesto called ''Dennis Cooper
Must Die!'' I was written off, quite accurately, as a

I spent the next three months laboring on an equally silly
manifesto about Cooper and Andrea Dworkin, whose 1991
novel, ''Mercy,'' also contained an endless stream of rapes
and brutalities. Near the end of that book, Dworkin mocks
herself in the third person: ''She is a prime example, of
course, of the simple-minded demagogue who promotes the
proposition that bad things are bad.'' Similar technique,
radical difference: Dworkin's contribution was to
stridently define what's wrong so that, like, maybe people
would pay attention.

Ah, the heady campus eves spent Taking Back the Night, the
windows steamed up with radical ''wimmin's'' literature!
But just when we nearly made the Society for Cutting Up Men
a delicious reality, listless punk collided with
hyperactive feminism and begat a distinct -- and far more
interesting -- sort of transgressive literature. For proof,
consider this summer's haul: a whole bunch of books about
tough women who swing on that tired spectrum between
sociological victim and reactionary rebel -- but sometimes,
happily, manage to break free.

''You're lucky and mean,'' screams a nicey-nice neighbor
girl as Junebug Host is acting out her own personal
psychodrama in a small Nebraska town. ''It's not fair.''
The 17-year-old heroine of Maureen McCoy's JUNEBUG
(Leapfrog, paper, $14.95) has been to visit her mother in
prison every Sunday for a dozen years. Unfortunately, on
this particular Sunday (which also happens to be Mother's
Day), Junebug's killer mom has confessed the back story --
she found little Junebug down at the trailer park, smelling
of rum, with her panties down around her ankles, so she
axed the man who'd been handling her day care.

No wonder Junebug has an extreme approach to life. (''Jesus
was the first known alien invader. . . . He went on back to
his base after messing around on earth. . . . He quit.
What's so holy about that?'') Not much happens in the novel
-- no fakey made-up grandness, just Junebug assimilating
mom's damaging info amid her own pop-rock fizzle of
adolescence (while engaging in a little self-mutilation on
the side). Finally, when her psyche spazzes, Junebug jumps
into life. And even though she goes extreme, there aren't
many consequences. Bad girls, evidently, are now allowed to
escape unpunished.

Cintra Wilson, the thinking woman's David Foster Wallace,
is well known for a treatise on the evils of fame-culture,
''A Massive Swelling.'' For her first novel, COLORS
INSULTING TO NATURE (Fourth Estate/HarperCollins, $24.95),
she's invented an insecure girl-child named Liza Normal and
then impaled her on the lusty spike of celebrity. Liza's
psycho stage mom makes her a far-too-young, tarted-up
cabaret warbler, but then there's a ''horrible
life-altering Incident of Shame.'' In thrall to a bad boy,
Liza un-enjoys an ''awkward rutting'' date rape in the
utility closet of a garage, during which most of her hair
is shaved off.

>From this humiliation she makes a kind of punk poetry,
refashioning herself into a Marin County Wendy O. Williams.
Later, Liza becomes a coke dealer's hussy, a porn writer, a
Haight Street speed freak, the codependent lover of a
fallen celebrity. Eventually, although ''her childhood
dream of being an irony-free, singing princess had been
shot down in flames,'' she comes to accept her role as ''an
icon of camp depravity.''

Meanwhile, Liza's counterpoint brother, Ned, becomes an
agoraphobic recluse and a famous outsider artist. Refusing
all life's shiny traps, he gets the goods and rewards. Ah,
humility! ''Colors Insulting to Nature'' is hilarious and
strong -- but what a big honkin' lie the parable of Ned and
Liza is! Wilson has the most action-packed sentences in the
biz, but this novel as polemic gives us a straw-man
argument. Besides, if she thinks celebrity is so sick, uh,
what's with the author's glamorous head shots?

Scott Bradfield does seem to think the world is a vampire,
as a poet once put it. A rowdily inventive novelist, he's
also an obsessive: his characters are murderer children,
murderer grandmas, murderer animals. In his latest book,
GOOD GIRL WANTS IT BAD (Carroll & Graf, paper, $13), the
murderer is Delilah Riordan, a supersexy and avowedly
innocent serial killer keeping a journal on death row. This
is all presumably farce, but Bradfield ventures so far into
Unreliable Narrator Land that it's unclear what's sardonic
and what's realistic. And there's something about Delilah's
irresistible man-trapping allure, as she seduces her
psychiatrists and guards, that's troublingly yesterdecade.
Bradfield -- so smart, sometimes so devastating -- is
talking about victim culture, but he's all trussed up in
it. He actually makes you miss Cintra Wilson's angry

Best for last! The narrator of Maggie Dubris's SKELS (Soft
Skull, paper, $14.95), a New York City paramedic named
Orlie Breton, is a naive poet from Ohio. It's the summer of
1978, and she works Harlem and Hell's Kitchen when she's
not kicked down to the freaky morgue shift. Orlie also
follows around a homeless albino poet, trading riddles
written on the walls of abandoned railway tunnels. Her
boyfriend takes way too much acid and becomes a magician of
holographs in Times Square. Orlie is a screw-up and then a
cover-of-the-tabloids heroine -- and she meets Walt
Whitman. Meantime, Dubris hasn't even broken a sweat in the

Her New York has everything and nothing to do with the real
world, which is a reminder of something very simple: books
don't need to get all pompous about our social disasters in
order to make the grandest possible statements about them.
''Skels'' floats completely free of those painful, tiresome
conversations about who we're supposed to be and who we
have to be. On a hot Manhattan night, with hydrants pumping
in the streets and the sirens Dopplering off, Orlie's in
the same ambulance with the rest of us, unconcerned with
being a subject, an object, a woman, a character.

Choire Sicha is the editorial director of Gawker.com.


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