Essay 18: You Girls
A slightly famous author once accused me of liking Sylvia Plath. I was at a book party, standing outside in what the slightly famous author kept on calling “the smoking garden”. It was a concrete courtyard in the middle of the corporate hotel where the party was being held. Very brightly lit. No chairs, even. Writers standing around, all hunched up and furtive, smoking the most depressing brands of cigarettes. Your Rothmans, your Princetons, your Benson and Hedges Special Mild. There was a disgraced cartoonist who had one of those little cigarette rolling machines. He kept telling people that the secret to keeping your tobacco moist was you put a piece of dried apple into the packet. He said “moist” to the women much more than to the men. He was wearing distressed-style jeans and a roomy blazer. He was wearing a woolly hat with ear flaps, although it was not cold.
The slightly famous author took all of this in his brisk stride. He was at the book festival to promote his latest novel. Like all of his previous works, it was about a young and vaguely left-wing white man clashing with various South African authority figures (mothers, corporals, sergeants etc.). Like all of his previous works, it contained many fine descriptions of Highveld storms, and the gnarled, shining white corpses of lightning-struck trees. His books were not as popular as they had once been. There was something a bit funny about his latest one, especially. It was too obviously nostalgic for the early eighties, too wistful for a time when the voices of people like him had mattered most. The reviews had been mixed. Perhaps because of this, his reading had been badly attended. Also, it was scheduled at the same time as the fourth event featuring an authentically famous writer, the star of the festival.
The slightly famous author did not seem embittered by this. He gave the impression of having a sincerely wonderful time, looking avidly about himself and saying, “Here we are, then. Here we are in the smoking garden.” He seemed enchanted by it all: waving brightly at everyone who went past, cocking his head sympathetically as the disgraced cartoonist told a story about his girlfriend getting stuck in a traffic jam, blowing smoke out of his nose in friendly jets. A nice man, really.
I saw a girl I knew ask him what his favourite kind of meat was. There was no reason for her to do this. The slightly famous author answered her with avuncular dignity. He looked gravely into her glittering eyes. First beef, he said, and then ostrich. Chicken last. She asked him if he could ever give up bacon, though, and he said no. She said that bacon smelled delicious, and he agreed. She adjusted the sewn-on panda ears of her woolly hat as she asked him if he had ever tried crocodile. He said yes. She said she could never eat crocodile. Yuck. He laughed with total abandonment. Was he on drugs? Was he one of those men who you only realise is drunk after they have tumbled silently down a flight of stairs, wearing a resigned and worldly expression? I could not say. The disgraced cartoonist had turned his back on us.
The girl who loved meat was just getting started. I had an idea of what was coming next – she was going to ask if he had a Kindle. Whatever his answer, she was going to say that she could never have a Kindle. She loved the smell of books too much, see. She loved the feel of a book in her hand TOO MUCH. Old books? Don’t even get her started. The smell and feel of a mega-old book? Please.
I could see it all playing out in front of me. The slightly famous writer could too, I think. He decided that things had gone far enough. He took control by turning to me, blowing smoke into my eyes and ears, and asking me what I thought of J.M. Coetzee. South African émigrés of a certain age love to ask this question. They imagine us sitting around making Coetzee voodoo dolls, writing lists of all the reasons Adelaide is a stupid place to live. They want us to feel betrayed, as if Coetzee is our collective dad who abandoned us for a different family. They want us to take it personally.
I said that I thought Disgrace was a very good book. The meat girl looked disappointed. Coetzee was such an easy one, and I was letting the side down. She moved over to join the disgraced cartoonist. Later, I would hear that they had begun passionately making out ten minutes after I’d left. I heard that they had torn each other’s woolly hats off in the fray.
The slightly famous writer pressed gamely on. Women, he said, don’t usually like Coetzee. They don’t like Coetzee or Updike or Bellow or Roth. Or Nabokov, now that he thought about it. He peered at me elatedly, a sort of terrible puckishness suffusing his features. Eyes suddenly more bright, incisors more pointy. It was clear that he had made this speech before. His whole expression, his posture and everything, said, “Here I go again. Get a load of me.” Other people were slaves to the kind of PC nonsense that insisted that women could like Philip Roth, but not the slightly famous author. No indeed. He was here for the truth. I wanted to lie down on the floor.
I said, although there was no point, that I liked all of those writers a lot. He laughed throatily at me. He told me I was just saying that to be contrary. Name a Nabokov novel, he said, besides from Lolita. I did. Name a Bellow. Tell me with a straight face that you got through the whole of Sabbath’s Theatre. Tell me your best book out of all the Updikes. Say which bit in Waiting For The Barbarians made it worth the hassle.
I told him and told him and told him. His laugh became richer and more disbelieving. He was capering on the spot, punching the air with little fists. He was having the most wonderful time, and he didn’t believe me for a single minute. “You girls,” he said, shaking his head. “Say what you want, but I know you all go home and read Sylvia Plath.”
I opened my mouth. I closed my mouth. I opened my hands. I closed my hands.
You girls. You girls, with your crush on Ophelia and Virginia Woolf and Elvira Madigan. You girls think you’re witches. You girls, with your anorexia and your cutting and the flowers in your hair. You girls, and your dissertations on perceptions of female hysteria. You think Mad Girl’s Love Song is the best title for anything, and you can’t believe you didn’t get there first. You believe that dying is an art, like everything else. You believe that you would do it exceptionally well. You girls with your incessant talk of periods and mermaids. You girls with your poster of The Lady of Shallot above your bed. You think you have a wound that will never heal. You girls keep tearing open the stitches.
All that. He didn’t say it, and probably he did not think it, but that’s what I heard. I opened my mouth. I closed my mouth. He ground out his cigarette and lurched inside, giving the disgraced cartoonist a reassuring arm squeeze as he went.
This was about five years ago. I have had some time to think about what I might have said. Something like a lie: I’ve never read Sylvia Plath, and actually I hate her, and actually I’ve never heard of her. Something like another kind of lie: I know The Bell Jar off by heart, and I admire the gumption of a woman who believes it is appropriate to equate her personal suffering to that of a Jew during the Holocaust. Or, something like the truth: I like her all right – not my best, and not my worst. But you can’t say that, to someone like the slightly famous author. Someone like the slightly famous author, he wants you to be one thing or the other.
I saw him three days ago in an airport. He was shorter than I remembered, with the contented face of a man on his way to the first-class lounge. He nodded to me as I walked past. I nodded back. I hear his last book sold very poorly indeed.