The Post-Feminism Mystique
By Max Dunbar.
Eat My Heart Out, Zoe Pilger, Serpent’s Tail 2014
Zoe Pilger‘s debut novel starts messy and gets worse. Her protagonist Ann-Marie is a Cambridge dropout with almost no sense of boundaries or self-awareness. She steals, propositions and attempts suicide at random intervals. Working as a ‘door bitch’ for a Soho restaurant and hanging around on the fringes of the hipsterati art scene, Ann-Marie’s chaotic life develops some coherence when she meets Stephanie Haight, a second-wave feminist name who makes the younger woman into a test case, and tries to cure Ann-Marie of her one conviction: that falling in love will save her life. Pilger said in an interview: ‘Ann-Marie is obsessed with Beyoncé and desperately wants to fall in love, whereas Stephanie is determined to re-educate, to undo the brainwashing that has taken place, albeit through her own form of brainwashing (which is equally destructive).’
Eat My Heart Out has been compared to Bret Easton Ellis, Kathy Acker, Lena Dunham’s Girls and early Amis, but transcends all these influences. Contra Fay Weldon, literary fiction has little time for people born post 1980, let alone people born post 1990. There is a world of struggling emergent youth out there that is simply unrepresented. Despite their first-class education Ann-Marie and her contemporaries are fighting for service jobs and floor space in a rigged game. Pilger started young — she is 29 and began writing this novel in late 2010 — and so is able to capture parts of London life that don’t even register on the establishment literary radar.
The art world takes a kicking. Ann-Marie’s housemate Freddie — think a younger Montague Withnail with a coke problem — has Ann-Marie star in a recreation of famous female writer suicides (an actual 2013 spread by Vice, pulled after an internet firestorm) and is also working on a show called Making a Racquet: ‘It all centres around an emerging bee-artist who has some issues about bees. He’s going to hit them with a racquet — plus they make a noise. They buzz.’ It is one of many, many fantastic lines. Of all the difficult things to do in writing a story, the most difficult thing is dialogue. I could spend the rest of the review listing examples. ‘Freddie, when you’ve done loads of drugs you look like a frightened horse.’ ‘Do you know what a message in a bottle is? It’s sent in faith, Vic, faith. Do you know what faith is?’ ‘Because even though people are from the same blood buffet, it doesn’t mean they’re the same type of sick gangster. What she did was frigidaire.’ The back and forth, the human music that people don’t know they make.
‘I don’t want to be free,’ Ann-Marie says. ‘I feel trapped anyway, in all this freedom.’ Stephanie Haight has a chapter that ends: ‘our fixation with love is caused by the opposite — it is caused by agoraphobia, by too much space.’ The prose has occasional lapses into faux-Hogarth scenes of sordid nights out in the big city — ‘To my left, a man was selling fake celebrity-endorsed perfumes to a crowd of tourists, who spritzed themselves liberally with the testers so that the toxically sweet scent conspired with the pollution to make the air unbearable.’ Eat My Heart Out could be seen as a satire on the dark side of the sexual revolution — the normalisation of rape in casual discourse (Ann-Marie’s boss prior to a busy shift tells her ‘that I was going to get slammed hard from all directions tonight so I better fucking enjoy it’) and, more existentially, about the terrors of freedom: because freedom is scary, freedom to fail, freedom to fuck up. Pilger’s prose is like grease in the night air, a leaden drunken feeling after a day spent asleep, what Ann-Marie calls a ‘ghost of experience.’
‘The party turned against the girl,’ Haight writes. ‘She was gang-raped by men who were flower children.’ The novelist Linda Grant described the 1970s as ‘a climate in which sexual exploitation by older men like Stuart Hall and Jimmy Savile could flourish. These men, born in the 1920s, were a product of more repressive times and they were taking advantage of the sexual revolution, regarding all younger women as easy meat for exploitation.’ To illustrate her point Haight forces Ann-Marie into a tryout for a strip show that serves up objectification under the fig leaf of burlesque. The problems with post-liberation and ‘ladette’ culture have been chronicled by talented feminist writers, notably Natasha Walter in Living Dolls. Yet all this shades into an old and familiar authoritarian critique. ‘We were a society dying,’ says Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, ‘of too much choice.’
How refreshing it was to see intelligent and articulate women stand up to the furtive, bullying, inadequate, misogyny of so many middle-aged males. The Everyday Sexism project, Hollaback and the SlutWalk demos, Reclaim the Night, the activism of Caroline Criado-Perez and the activism of Laurie Penny: ‘it was a fresh inclusive moment, what Hunter S Thompson in another time called ‘a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.’ It’s depressing therefore that the new feminist movement imploded in endless Twitter outrage parties carried out in the argot of intersectionality: ‘the jargon-filled language of the intellectual left,’ Nick Cohen calls it, ‘which ordinary people cannot understand, and know without needing to be told are not meant to understand either.’ When a conference at Barnard College descended into narcissistic infighting, disappointed Nation writer Michelle Goldberg reported that ‘the response was so vitriolic, so full of bad faith and stubborn misinformation, that it felt like some sort of Maoist hazing.’ Goldberg does not exaggerate. A friend of the blogger Phil Dore was attacked on Twitter last year with online feminists repeatedly accusing her of transphobia. Dore writes: ‘Unfortunately one of her hidden oppressions was an anxiety disorder, and the Twitterstorm triggered a relapse.’
This isn’t a political problem so much as a human nature problem. Like all political movements, the fourth wave of feminism had become a purely social thing defined by codes, language, in-jokes, rites, rituals and rules. The tragedy of social activism is that groups begin with universal goals and end up fixated, through organisational dynamics, on petty personal and political difference. It’s not an environment in which creative outsiders like Ann-Marie can thrive. Pilger said that: ‘I don’t have a political message I’m trying to put across. I just wanted to open up the space of talking about feminism in a way that was accessible. A lot of academic feminist ideas can be very intense and impenetrable, which is a shame because feminism is about people’s real lives and is something all men and women need.’ With her empathy and sense of perspective, Pilger demonstrates that it’s better to spread this consciousness through fiction.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, February 11th, 2014.