Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Book Selection of the Month: "Rules for Saying Goodbye" by Katherine Taylor (Plus: New-Zipcode Bombshell)

Katherine Taylor ToddSeavey.com Book Selection of the Month (June 2007):

Rules for Saying Goodbye by Katherine Taylor

I will help future literary historians (not to mention present-day reviewers facing imminent deadlines) by revealing one of the most important things about the just-released novel Rules for Saying Goodbye: Every word of it is true.

Well, OK, not every single word — in real life, the analogue of the protagonist’s best friend Clarissa may merely have had a psychosomatic illness, for example (now she’s more interested in the welfare of her child, and blogging quite wittily about it) — but the book’s at least as close to autobiography as, say, Purple Rain was.

Indeed, I can’t help wondering how the author, a friend of mine for years, decided to use her real name and her mother’s (for the protagonist and the protagonist’s mother), while changing her brothers’ names, but that’s a trivial detail — and something you can ask her yourself if you attend the June 20 session of the Debates at Lolita Bar I host, since Katherine will be one of the two debaters, the other being downtown performance-humorist-nerd “Rev. Jen” Miller, on the question “Is It More Painful to Get Dumped or to Do the Dumping?”

Judging by the book, it’s a question to which Katherine has already given a great deal of thought, since each of the book’s four sections focuses on a break-up of one sort or another: moving away from home to boarding school, breaking up with British boyfriend #1, breaking up with the Italian boyfriend, and breaking up with British boyfriend #2. In between (and during) those incidents, a lot of alcohol is consumed, much of it just a few blocks south of me on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The fact that Katherine will be arguing on June 20 that it’s more painful to do the dumping is impressive, considering that, as she recounts in the book, she was once so distraught about being dumped herself that she immediately vomited, right there on the spot.

Saying Things Just to Hear What They Sound Like

I don’t know if such vignettes form what someone as stodgy as Aristotle or Tolkien would call a plot, but as with Prince, the important thing here is poetic language more than either verisimilitude or narrative drive. And Katherine probably uses language more effectively than anyone else I know: gently assembling delicate, empirical bits of information in the form of carefully-placed, efficient little phrases, sort of like a more girly, tentative, and ironic version of Hemingway. Comparing one’s own prose to Katherine’s is bound to make one feel like a slob, even if one is ostensibly a professional writer (all those people who don’t know that quotes within quotes take single quote marks [perhaps thinking that single quote marks are simply for any short phrases], who use a single open quote at the beginning of ’07 when they should use an apostrophe [some of them, alas, in charge of writing auto-correction software for Microsoft], who think “begs the question” means “forces us to ask the question” instead of “assumes what is ostensibly to be proven,” who leave commas out of song titles so that they look like “Back Off Man,” or who continue using Buffy-inspired “Slayer slang” such as the phrase “um, not so much” long after it has outlived any imaginable comedic purpose, should probably not even be allowed to read Katherine’s work). Here’s just one paragraph, from the chapter that lists for us the actual Rules for Saying Goodbye (that is, rules for managing a breakup with a boyfriend), explaining to women Rule #5:

Flirt with his mother. If his mother is not available, his sister or aunt will do. Flirt mercilessly until she adores you. If you do not smoke, take it up in order to share furtive cigarettes with her in the guest bathroom. Always carry very nice cigarettes, but not overly nice — Nat Sherman, for example, but not Cartier gold-tipped. If you have not already done it by the time you decide to leave, knit a scarf that matches her eyes. When she admires it, take it off your neck and give it to her. It will be easier for her to wear later if she doesn’t think you knitted it specifically for her, and throughout the winter and next fall, the scarf itself will remind him how gracious you were.

That’s funny and quite sad at the same time — though I am obliged to tell you, in keeping with my day job, that you should not in fact take up smoking. Katherine, a libertarian who worked as a bartender in Manhattan, was none too happy about the initial crimp in business caused by the smoking ban here — a development referred to in the novel — and was somewhat displeased that I wasn’t as outraged by the new regulation as I am by all the other regulations, though I was still against it — I’m an anarchist, after all. She has also never been too pleased with my philosophical opposition to some of the views of her friend Dr. Jeffrey Schaler and his mentor, Dr. Thomas Szasz, who more or less contend that there is no such thing as mental illness. As the novel makes clear, though, Katherine has enough eccentric or neurotic acquaintances — and is conscious enough of her own neuroses — to have a legitimate fear that a lot of people in her social circle would be at risk of involuntary confinement if standards of sanity were to get too high.

Pretending They’re All Dead

Many of those acquaintances show up, thinly disguised, for amusing cameos, most of them being dissipated idle-rich sorts but one, “Albert,” being the combative communist writer-publisher through whom, oddly enough, I first met the founders of the Debates at Lolita Bar (and who has complained in an interview about libertarians not being revolutionaries so much as thinly disguised Upper East Side Republicans). And I must say, even though I of all people should be philosophically inclined to root for the protagonist and her rich-kid pals and against Albert, and even though I know how these vignettes actually end, seeing all the self-indulgent behavior of this vampiric overclass is almost enough to make me root at times for Albert to strangle them all or at least threaten to put them all up against the wall when the revolution comes. Rules for Saying Goodbye is not, in short, good propaganda for convincing people that New York is a city full of responsible, hard-working, dynamic young adults building a brighter future. More like a city full of cocaine, sex in bathrooms, very unwise career decisions, complete assholes who know celebrities, assholes who actually are celebrities (David Byrne’s bad tipping at bars is noted even while his musical genius is acknowledged), and lots of expensive restaurants.

But whether you’re seeing that with your own eyes or reading about it in this novel, the perverse, seductive thing is, it’s hard to decide whether it’s altogether bad. And ambivalence is a lot like depression, a point made — deliberately or not — over and over again in Rules for Saying Goodbye, and a point that ought to seem familiar to a lot of New Yorkers. If you’re miserable, hard-working, and poor now but have a 15% chance of fantastic wealth in four years, are you in some sense leading the good life? What if you have no mate but have been to sixteen parties full of the most beautiful people on the planet in just the past month? Are you happy? Wretched? If you pick “wretched,” are you a whiner amidst plenty, in the grand historical scheme of things? If you don’t pick wretched, are you a shallow jerk?

There’s a bit of the girl-from-mundane-origins thrust headlong-into-excess-urban-glamour motif in the novel, a dash of Holly Golightly that reminds me of the all too typical first new friend (or seeming-friend) I made when I moved to this city right after college and miraculously — despite four years at Brown — still possessed fairly simple, smalltown assumptions about how people behaved, which was basically: nicely if you’re nice to them, meanly if you’re mean to them, unless they’re criminals, Soviet agents, or axe-murderers. This first new New York acquaintance wasn’t quite that straightforward. She’d been author-to-be Katie Roiphe’s friend at Harvard, and whereas Roiphe kept a portrait of herself from her years as a teenage anorexic at her bedside to remind herself not to become emaciated again, my initially fat and rural-Kentucky-spawned quasi-friend had deliberately slimmed down, smoked, and drunk as much as possible, in a deliberate campaign, as she explained it in Manhattan a few years after she graduated, to become socially intimidating so that she could lie and manipulate the people around her — and when she said this was still her ambition as an adult, I mistakenly assumed she was joking or had some sort of Oscar Wilde-influenced cynical philosophy I wasn’t quite understanding. I mean, people just don’t get that bad, unless they’re Soviet agents or axe-murderers, right? Who wants to be bad, I thought?

This non-friend cut off contact with me once it became clear I wasn’t able to add sufficiently to the amoral glamour of her nightlife (really, she told me so quite frankly), but I did leave her one message years later encouraging her to see a revival of the Golightly-esque play As Bees in Honey Drown, about a rural woman turned big-city sophisticate who enjoys sadistically manipulating a nice-guy writer she meets, in part to prove she’s become more powerful than she was as a bumpkin. Stories like that happen here a lot, I think.

I, by contrast, arrived here such a good-hearted naif that I recall in late 1991 still considering “schmoozing” an immoral activity — and being horrified when I realized that one of my co-workers at St. Martin’s Press was inviting an editor to a party not because he was a friend — or even likable — but because he was “important.” Doing that doesn’t sound like a big deal now, after a decade and a half of occasionally glimpsing wheeler-dealers, but I was aghast at the time, and surely I’ve lost a little something in the interim.

The Best of Places, the Worst of Places: 10021 No More

For the protagonist of Rules for Saying Goodbye — who remains a decent person throughout, making only the rarest and most half-hearted attempts to misbehave — much of the allure of the big city and its decadent inhabitants comes from a specific desire to escape Fresno, CA, culturally and psychologically. Whether or not she ends up in a better place psychologically is debatable, but we get to follow her on a tour of some pretty glamorous geography in the process, including Brussels, Rome, London, and Manhattan’s richest zip code, 10021, where Katherine lived for ten years and where I have now lived for ten years but no longer will — not because I’m moving, mind you, but because they’re breaking it up into three separate zipcodes, with the richest chunk (where Katherine lived) remaining 10021 (average income $85,000 according to the New York Times; home to conservative icons William F. Buckley and Bill Cosby), the second-richest chunk becoming 10065 (average income $82,000; home to David Rockefeller and Spike Lee), and bums like me relegated as of the end of the month (NOTE IT IN YOUR ADDRESS BOOKS) to 10075 (average income, which I am below, $74,000; home to the governor, the mayor, and one of my biggest influences — not that it necessarily shows — Tom Wolfe).

Katherine, who may in some ways be a victim of the view (parodied so ably by Kyle Smith in a December ToddSeavey.com Book Selection) that fashion and glamour actually matter (but then, how else can the existence of some of the people in this book be justified?) skewers pretensions and social-climbing obsessions wittily, though without making it clear whether she’s really capable of leaving all those petty concerns behind once and for all, crucial though that would seem (from reading the book) to her future happiness and stability.

In the meantime, though, she’s got the glamorous thing down pat, (1) being praised by Time Out New York (kudos to her brother Russel on his photos of her, by the way, which certainly don’t hurt the cause), (2) having her amusing literary feud with Bejamin Kunkel (founder of the New-York-yuppie-leftist lit journal n+1) egged on by Gawker.com (he suggested her work shouldn’t be taken seriously, as retaliation for her brief description of one of his novels as “simple” when New York Observer interviewed her), and perhaps best of all (3) having MediaBistro.com include her on their list of memoirists they consider sexier than Ayaan Hirsi-Ali (much as I hate to see even Katherine upstage a heroic opponent of Islamic fundamentalism who was driven out of Europe).

Two final thoughts:

(1) Thanks to brother Russel’s photographic skills (and nature), the Observer spent a surprising chunk of their profile marveling at Katherine’s chest — a reminder that the buttocks of one of our previous Lolita Bar debaters, Dawn Eden, were also praised in the pages of that paper, perhaps part of a pattern.

(2) Contra Kunkel, I wouldn’t call Katherine’s style unserious so much as witty-but-fragile — but, hey, I’ve forgotten most of what I learned as an English major (while retaining a lot of what I learned as a philosophy major), so what do I know?

P.S. I am also, thanks in part to the influence not only of my parents but people like my farmer grandfather and his recently-deceased brother, Milt Geer, something of a simple rural guy at heart myself, and perhaps saner and less wracked by status-anxiety because of it than some of the unhappy souls chronicled in Rules for Saying Goodbye. On the other hand, much as I love trees and animals, next month’s Book Selections will be all about cyborgs and the like, so please keep reading — and in the interim, join Katherine, Rev. Jen, moderator Michel Evanchik, and me at Lolita Bar on June 20 (8pm), and read Rules for Saying Goodbye so you can see the highlife and the horror for yourself.


Funny said...

you and dawn are adopting new zip codes in the same month – coincidence?

just kiddin

Todd Seavey said...

Yes, my staunchly-Catholic ex, Dawn Eden, is moving to DC to run a Love and Responsibility Program for a major Catholic organization, which seems like a logical happy ending of sorts — except that a troubling ancient prophecy predicts that all zipcodes where Dawn does _not_ dwell will soon be changed to 10666, starting with the warring fragments of old 10021…

Katherine said...

Every word is not true! Todd Seavey, you are a sensationalist, and if you’re not careful, you are going to start rumors. Is that what you want — rumors?

The part about David Byrne is true, though.

toddseavey said...

It’s a novel, I mean — a novel! And David Byrne did do this — http://youtube.com/watch?v=erPcEfS8o_s — so he will always have my admiration.

Brain said...


Based on your book review choices…

Are you a girl? Or are you just like Clint Eastwood in “Heartbreak Ridge”, distastefully reading Cosmopolitan and Redbook so that you can try to understand them?



Todd Seavey said...

I am a Renaissance person. I’ve also recommended Leo Strauss, Philip Howard, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Brian Doherty, after all. Next month is shaping up to be pretty manly (and science-oriented, not that I’m saying that makes it less girly — we don’t want to start that debate again just yet).  Above all: quality.

Brain said...

The reason I asked, was because I read “Girlbomb” on your recommendation. My short but pithy review on it:

“Sweet Valley High” for degenerates.

That is not to say that I did not enjoy it a bit, at least at the start. And it was probably less excruciating than any book of social commentary. I also liked that Miss Erlbaum’s prim press photos were by Richard Kern.

And I still can’t find Miss Eden’s book in my local Barnes and Noble, and at this point I’ve lost interest. I feel kinda weird going to look for it in the Religion section, which is sensibly right next to the “New Age”, Self-Help, and Sexuality sections.

Todd Seavey said...

You say “Sweet Valley High for degenerates” like it’s a bad thing, but I think Janice Erlbaum should use that as a cover blurb for the next edition (reminds me of the cover blurb excerpted from one of my _People_ magazine book reviews years ago — “combines the tension of _Apollo 13_ and _ER_” — used on the paperback edition of Tess Gerritsen’s thriller _Gravity_, as I later noticed while walking through the supermarket checkout aisle, and I stand by those overheated words).

I promise you the Taylor novel is artfully-crafted literary fiction…for degenerates.

The intersection of self-help, New Age, and sexuality sounds like exactly the right place for Dawn’s book (which really is in the Religion section, I think you’ll find). But maybe Dawn’s book isn’t something you can find in a store, with material things. Maybe it’s something you have to look to a higher power to find. (Hey, coincidentally a sky-writing message just started appearing above Central Park as I typed that — but coincidences happen all the time, and there’s still no God. Pretty anemic-looking message, too — appears to say “C i.” Maybe the plane’s malfunctioning.)

Todd Seavey said...

Oh, and while I think of it: read the Taylor novel somewhat slowly. The individual sentences are often set-up/punchline irony-gems unto themselves, rather than plot-drivers, like Henny Youngman for NPR-listening female grad students. Oh, make that: “Like Henny Youngman for NPR-listening female grad students! — ToddSeavey.com”

Brain said...

I’m reading Robert Graves’ “I, Claudius” right now, which I suppose is a sort of “Sweet Valley High” for antiquarians. Happily, it does chastise degeneracy. One advantage is that it is about a matter of consequence, being removed from me by two millenia and thereby more important than the goings-on of putative movers and shakers of present day Gotham, where I live.

Now I’ve got myself confused. Sky-writing, huh?

Todd Seavey said...

And, vice versa, there is certainly something very Roman about the very premise of _Sweet Valley High_: two beautiful twin teenage girls, like Romulus and Remus, but one good and one naughty, like Janus (or is that Bizarro?) — witness this clip: http://youtube.com/watch?v=kUaabKttAIw . And a disturbing 80s homage to Roman decadence, from the band Soft Cell, is among the links in my next blog entry: