It’s not that often that a book I care deeply about gets reviewed by The New York Times, so, I was happy and then very sad to see Claudia La Rocco’s review of Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, a graphic novel by Anya Ulinich, a book I’ve been telling people about and looking forward to writing about for months. (The review came out this summer; I’m writing about it now because the book is rightfully getting some good year-end press).
The Lena Finkle story in its rough outlines is about a late-30s, divorced Russian-Jewish immigrant with two children who falls in crazy, obsessed, high-school love with a Svengali-ish man, and then goes berserk when he dumps her, a time she calls “my year of unreasonable grief.” She writes the book in an attempt to understand what the fuck just happened to her, and why.
The answer is partially sex—the Svengali, whom she calls “the Orphan,” is the first person she’s had good sex with—and partially everything that informs sex. An incident of sexual abuse she endured as a child, her stilted, emotionally abusive marriage, body-hatred, shame, all the things she’s never done. Here’s a passage representative of the deep, awful honesty with which Finkle exposes herself, writing about her marriage:
“Anyway, we’d be eating some hundred dollar meal, and I’d be so bored, and Josh would snipe at the kids about their manners, and Dasha would cry silently, and we’d inevitably get into a fight… And I hated fighting and my heart would race, but I’d also be relieved because having this $100 fight absolved me from having to have sex later…”
And here she is talking to the Svengali. I’m going to reproduce these lovely and excruciating two pages in full.
The last segment of the book represents Finkle, after the Svengali leaves her, during her heartbreak and sleepless nights, as a baby chick, endlessly repeating the phrases “I love you” and “Why?” It’s the best representation I’ve seen of that sleepless-weight-loss-breakup-despair. Hilariously, the baby-chick frames repeat with a frame where the depressed Finkle carries on the relentless bare-minimum functions of motherhood, telling her kids, over and over, “Eat your food.”
“I love you.” “Why?” “Eat your food.”
It’s a dark night of a grown woman’s soul, gorgeously rendered, and also hilariously funny. This book wrote itself into my brain; lines, frames, exchanges were floating up out of the darkness weeks after I read it. I didn’t just like Lena Finkle, I loved her. She made me laugh at my own pain.
The book raises many questions. Why do women fall for Svengalis of the particular type Ulinich writes about? Are you better off divorced and dating than you were unhappily married? Where does that baby-chick place come from, and how do we cope when someone accesses it? Is the crazy-love worth the heartbreak? How do you balance motherhood with finding yourself?
With all of these themes to work with, in addition to class and immigration, the Claudia La Rocco review in The New York Times chose…wait for it… that protagonist was a narcissist and unlikeable, those two time-honored ways of dismissing women’s writing. And the argument for why Finkle was unlikeable was that she dared talk about herself. Here’s the outrageously negative-slant quote: “She spends the 361 pages of this first-person account relentlessly in search of a self, armed with an OkCupid account, an irrepressible inner voice rendered as a miniature Lena, and a penchant for quickly reducing others to bit players in her one-woman show.” So many pages! So relentless! The horror! And imagine, she’s a main character, that egomaniac!
Ulinich addressed the narcissism issue in the book–which is rich in literary allusion (the title is a Malamud reference)–in a panel where her character Lena Finkle talks to an imaginary version of Philip Roth about how men can get away with writing about themselves and their sexual exploits and women can’t. She’s explicitly aware of how women are dismissed, and quite funny on the topic. La Rocco mentions that, but dismisses it too, in a fabulously incoherent passage about Lena Dunham whose argument is so murky I’m unable to summarize it.
“The success of a writer and director like Lena Dunham, forging her own engrossing brand of 21st-century narcissism, gives a bit of room to hope that this aspect of artistic sexism is easing (either that, or she’s the exception of the moment who proves the rule).”
Did you get that? Lena Dunham’s (narcissistic!) success means it’s OK for women to talk about herself (without being called a narcissist!), so that narcissist Anya Ulinich has nothing to worry about.
That this form of sexism is still happening, and goes unremarked in the pages of The New York Times, makes me sick as a woman, a writer, and a reader. Does anyone, ever, police what kind of man a male protagonist can be? A male character can be a shallow, hopeless cipher, and all we ask is what the author intends with this artistic choice. Women to this day still have to write good girls, or have to write bad girls of a culturally sanctioned sort (sexy, pretty, and nonthreatening to men), or else the debate will be moved off their writing, and onto what kind of woman they are.
And this is just what La Rocco does between the lines by spending the rest of the review, after the narcissism part, branding Ulinich’s book as lightweight women’s entertainment, mostly through association with Girls. I.e., Ulinich is the kind of woman who is not a serious writer (and also a slut, see below). Lena Dunham, according to La Rocco, is “the artist with whom Ms. Ulinich is most strongly in conversation”—(this is despite literal conversations with Philip Roth and the long passages about Malamud…what a girl would have to do to be taken seriously, I don’t know). La Rocco justifies the comparison because the book is “a fast read, but not a dumb one,” which is “pitched toward the same pop culture consumers who are drawn into the best serial shows.” And because both Lenas are “unapologetic about having personalities more engrossing than likable.”
La Rocco can’t come out and say it, but by invoking fast-and-dumb, and calling the readers “consumers,” she’s calling the book chick lit.
This is a graphic novel, starring a Russian-Jewish immigrant and named after a Malamud story. Can we really say that anything named Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel is making a wide bid for lightweight popularity? Really? And why are female readers of stories about sex suddenly “consumers” and not “readers”?
There is a case for the Girls comparison. A writer as allusion-savvy as Ulinich did not name her protagonist Lena for nothing. But it’s not the case La Rocco makes. The real case is in La Rocco’s second point, that both Lenas are “unapologetic about having personalities more engrossing than likable,” which itself is a fig-leaf for something nastier. I am not an expert on Lena Dunham, but I’d be very surprised if she were really unapologetically unlikeable. Lena Finkle certainly isn’t. Both are, however, unapologetic about having sex while being not-what-they’re-supposed-to-be: not stick-thin and not (conventionally) pretty. (For the record, I think both Lena Finkle and Lena Dunham are gorgeous). In Finkle’s case it’s also daring to have sex while being divorced and a mother. La Rocco clearly finds this unlikeable, and tries to dismiss it as a valid topic by saying that a woman’s sexual fulfillment “shouldn’t be noteworthy at this point in pop culture.”
I would say that the hubbub over Girls and the recent vicious attacks on Lena Dunham’s character make it totally, painfully clear that the type of woman allowed to have sex is a topic that’s not old, not boring and not at all over, but instead is pure cultural dynamite.
And when the wrong type of woman has sex, what do we do? We slut-shame her. The opening line of La Rocco’s review is, “There are a lot of men floating around in Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel.” Sounds vaguely pornographic, doesn’t it? I don’t want lots of men floating in my barrel. The next describes Finkle’s “myriad, typically dispiriting sexual adventures,” despite that the book’s focus is a love story, albeit disastrous, about a woman having the best sex of her life. In another place, La Rocco describes, “Lena’s full-on downward spiral after the dissolution of the most substantial sexual bond she forges, a four-month entanglement…” Doesn’t Lena sound flighty and promiscuous, with her sordid, brief affairs? These characterizations completely ignore the love story (calling it an “entanglement”) and another substantial part of the novel detailing a life-long relationship with a first boyfriend in Russia. It’s like La Rocco saw the promiscuity (yes, there is some, and it’s thoughtful, deeply mined and hilarious) and couldn’t see the rest of the book.
She does some divorced-woman shaming, too:
“Lena’s is bankrolled by her ex-husband’s child support; he toils away at a deadening day job, while she nonetheless manages to think ungenerous things about him as she toys with her going-nowhere second novel.”
It’s appalling that a writer in The New York Times can get away with saying that a woman (or a man, or anyone receiving child support) is supposed to feel guilty and beholden for it. It demonstrates complete unawareness of the complexities of unpaid domestic work. And to say that a woman with a well-received first novel (as Lena’s in the book is characterized to be) is “toying” with her second book is equally disgusting.
My overall impression was that the reviewer had a personal dislike for this character—based exactly on the hot-button issues Ulinich is pushing, and instead of saying so and saying why, which could have been an interesting review at least, fell into some lazy and confused conventions in order to use her position to dismiss the book. It’s maddening that I’ve spent this many words writing about a bad review instead of an excellent book, and I can only beg you all to go buy Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel and see for yourselves.