Friday, July 13, 2012

The Humorless Feminist

I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley (Penguin Group, 2008) 228 pages

Hello, my Name is A Lit Chick and I ... am ... a ... humorless feminist but, hey, I come by it honestly. I have been a humorless feminist since the age of eleven. Yes, I do recall the exact date of my epiphany (a long story that I will share another time). Since that age, I have struggled to find humor in the written works of contemporary comedic writers.

David Sedaris leaves me cold. Woody Allen ... meh. Fran Liebowitz ... sister please. The two Daves: respectively, Barry and Eggers. Bleh. Sarah Vowell, okay she makes me laugh. She's odd, quirky and smart. I love to laugh as much as the next gal, possibly more. I love funny people, they are my favorite kind of people but humor in the printed word is so elusive for me. So what is my problem besides the fact that I am a humorless feminist? 

I picked up this book in New York at the Strand Bookstore last month because I loved the title. And I like reading thoughtful essays. So why does Ms. Crosley's brand of humor irk me so much? Because it is about nothing ... not the funny "It's about nothing" Seinfeld kind of humor, it's just about nothing. 

She has a trash mouth, which does appeal to me, but she wastes it on the trivial. She is charmingly insecure about her looks and hair. But what gal isn't? Look at her face ... sniping at her would be like yelling at a kitten. However, one must screw your courage to the sticking-place in reviewing ...

A sample of the personal essays, albeit, I'll admit she has a talent for snappy titles ...
  • My collection of toy ponies ("My Pony Problem").
  • I got locked out of my apartment not once, but twice, the day I moved apartments. I'm such a flake! ("Fuck you, Columbus")
  • I'm a vegetarian and it pisses off my friends and family ("Lay like Broccoli").
  • At summer camp, they made all the kids (even the non-Christians) participate in Christmas celebrations ("Christmas in July") and even though I'm Jewish I liked it!
  • I pissed off my friend's boyfriend one night and I think he left me an ugly surprise in my bathroom ("Smell This").
Say something meaningful I want to scream, stop being so glib and frothy.

The closest we get to any honest emotion is in the essay "You on a Stick" about being the maid of honor for a high maintenance friend from high school whom Crosley has not seen since high school. A lot of the expected humor is at the expense of the bridezilla who mercifully has had her name changed in this piece. But Crosley hits a nerve about female relationships and the married state. Not everyone gives a damn about weddings or bachelorettes or the size of the ring he bought you. There is an ugly, largely unspoken of tension here ... implicitly, for some, a woman's value and self-esteem is tied to the size of the wedding celebration and the cost of the Vera Wang dress. It's one of the few places where we see a glimpse of honest anger and  truth. The page practically crackles with heat and rage.

The wedding industrial complex is obnoxious; it does do something to women who get sucked into it. Otherwise rational, intelligent women start bullying and terrorizing everyone around them to achieve that most ephemeral of things - the perfect wedding.

The essay on Crosley's first boss being an unbearable harpy ("The Ursula Cookie"), despite her initial positive impression of the woman, was poignant but lacking in something. Crosley resigns the day after 911 after being treated horrendously by her seemingly sociopathic boss - not specifically because of 911 but it just happened to work out that way. There were so many ways she could have handled this episode: perhaps an examination of a thwarted expectation that maybe Ursula would change her ways in a post-911 "we're all in this together" New York sort of way; the realization that she likely wouldn't change; exploding the myth that publishing work in NYC, even entry level work, is glamorous. Instead we have the depiction of a very immature person just disintegrating in front of her vicious employer (very understandable but interesting? I'm not sure). Who has not dissolved before an intimidating boss who thought you were a complete fool?

Or take for example the essay "Sign Language for Infidels". Crosley, or a reasonable facsimile of her fictional self, volunteers at the American Museum of Natural History in the Butterfly Room. It reveals a bit about volunteerism and self-delusion. We want to "appear" to be good people by volunteering but often don't have the wherewithal to follow through and often dislike what we have to do and whom we have to do it with as volunteers.

Maybe I just have an odd sense of humor. I think the following personal anecdote that I have written about in this blog is funny: a (presumably) homeless person sniping at me while I am serving food at the local soup kitchen during my stint as a volunteer in the winter during a particularly trying night because a) it explodes the little liberal fantasy I have that the homeless are sweet, beleaguered people who are grateful for my volunteer work. b) I can freely admit that he looks like a jerk for being rude to me and I'm a jerk for expecting that a potentially mentally ill person of limited means is not going to feel stressed and angry when he can't get his meal in what he perceives to be a timely fashion. Now, for me, that's funny because it says something about him (he is human, very much so) and me (a deluded liberal stripped of her expectations) and society (we think passing out some meatloaf to an impoverished person with possible mental health issues will make things better in our city). 

Ms. Crosley
So I wanted Crosley to say something about her 20 something life in New York. Something about the experience of being young in one of the greatest cities in the world. There is virtually nothing about 911 or life after it. Nothing about the diversity or class differences or proximity to some of the richest people in the world in that city.

So ... do you want to sound like a smart-assed, trash talking Westchester bred brat from a privileged background? Or do you want to say something meaningful? Okay, we're waiting Sloane. You can do it ... "My name is Sloane Crosley and I want to write comic pieces ..."

1 comment:

Christine said...

Oh, I have so much to say about this! I also enjoyed this book, but also found it light -- and lacking -- somehow. I chalked it up to her age. She's young. People are no so funny until they've suffered some. Suffering helps the funny.
But I can't believe Mr. Sedaris leaves you cold. He's right up there for me -- beside the late and wonderful Ms. Ephron.