That Dumbass Friend

I’ve recently been reading the memoire of a woman who was kicked off her very high management position two days after being promoted, and then schemed out of a renewed offer by a former-boss who wanted to hire a relative instead, and spent two years unemployed and re-learning life’s priorities in an immigrant-rich neighbourhood.

It sounds sort of preachy when I put it like that, but Bitter is the New Black is actually quite a fun book, without actually ascending to snooty “literature”.

What I loved particularly is the very real central character Jen, who is successful, assertive, speaks her mind (unlike a LOT of white American women I know), is deeply and reciprocally in love with her boyfriend, loyal, smart; and yet nutty, occasionally silly, a bit self-confessedly selfish, condescending towards her Latino neighbours, and ridiculously consumerist in the beginning of the story. In other words, a real person! Woohoo! One doesn’t always meet such a well-rounded character even in “literature”, because our minds are too riddled with stereotypes, and living real life does very little to dispel them.

Quite pleased with Jen’s first tale – in which she, unusually and bravely, uses real names and real events from her life, sparing no one (and certainly not herself) as she charts her journey from financially immature upper-middle-class fashion-slave to unemployed, “ghettoised” and poverty-struck partner of depressed, laid-off husband – I picked up another of her books, called My Fair Lazy. And I was irritated before the first chapter was out.

Sure, Jen’s still very honest, and the book feels like a conversation over tea or drinks with a friend rather than, you know, a book (so well done, Jen!), but by switching tracks from corporate employee-turned-job hunter to stay-at-home writer, Jen has allowed reality TV to blur her edge, and turned her into the sort of attention-hijacking air-head with verbal diarrhoea that most right-thinking people would despise. Take, for example, her ridiculous grilling of her friend Angie:

…we were taking our friend Angie to see the ocean for the first time.
“I just don’t understand how someone can be our age and have never seen the ocean,” I say. I mean, I know it’s possible—the kids on Amish in the City—my second-favorite reality show ever—had never seen the ocean before, but they’d also never ridden on escalators or tasted coffee or had zippers on their pants. Plus, Angie’s not Amish.
“I grew up on a Great Lake. Ask anyone in Michigan, and they’ll tell you it’s the same thing,” Angie replies.
I can’t wrap my mind around this. “You haven’t even been to the Caribbean? Or, like, Florida? I bet you’ve been and you just don’t remember. You’ve seen it. You must have seen it.”
Angie frowns at me. “I’ve repressed my memory of the ocean?”
“Yeah.” I bob my head enthusiastically, agreeing with my own conspiracy theory.
“No.”
I persist. “But you just flew into New York yesterday. Did you not notice that big band of blue surrounding LaGuardia?”
Blackbird glances back from the driver’s seat. “Jen, that’s the Long Island Sound.”
“No,” I insist. “I’m talking about the other water around the airport.”
Blackbird raises one elegant eyebrow in the rearview mirror. “The East River? Flushing Bay?”
I deliberately switch tracks. “Angie, did you or did you not see the Statue of Liberty on your flight in?”
“I did! How cool was that? I can’t wait to tell the boys!”
“Aha! Then you saw the ocean that surrounds her!”
Poppy chimes in, “That would be the New York Bay.”
Wendy leans around Angie, who’s sitting between us in the backseat. “Jen, I thought you lived here. Shouldn’t you know this?”
“Pfft, that was thirty years ago. I’m allowed to forget. Anyway, Ange, you never felt like just packing up the family and taking everyone to the beach for a few days?” I ask […] “it’s kind of weird to be an ocean virgin at almost forty”.

It’s almost harassment! The woman hasn’t seen an ocean. Maybe she hadn’t enough money for a trip. Maybe she’s scared of the water. Maybe she was bitten by a mermaid once. If you’re allowed to forget your basic geography, she’s allowed to choose her relaxations. Let the damn thing go!

I actually know people like this, and they’re intolerable to converse with precisely because of their obsessive grilling of things different from their own lives or preferences. Jen at least understands that there is a problem with her. “I just don’t want to give strangers the impression that I’m a dumb ass,” she says, “I don’t want to make them feel all uncomfortable when I spout a bunch of thoughtless commentary”.

The friend who harassed me for two successive days about an off-hand comment praising pickled bamboo-shoots hasn’t reached this level of self-awareness yet. She thinks she’s entitled to a detailed explanation of why people might like things she despises or considers odd. Such explanations, she once told me, “has to be” riddled with logical fallacies – because one’s preference for pickled bamboo shoots totally depends on rationality – and if the grilling’s long, hard and persistent enough, the person will retract their preference, and her point of view will reign supreme.

Can you say “Issues”? Yes, I think you can.

So, in conclusion, the point of this post is that Jen Lancaster writes some very life-like female characters. Being life-like, they’re not always sympathetic and awesome, and there’s a good chance you know the sort of people she describes, but life usually being a bitch, there’s also a fair chance that they won’t be as self-aware or open to change as she is. Too bad, so sad.

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