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The Anxiety of Everyday Objects
Aurelie Sheehan
New York: Penguin Books, 2004.
$14.00, 278 pages, ISBN 0-14-200370-0.

Catherine Heyrendt
Université de Paris XII


Aurelie Sheehan takes apart and redefines the Angst of the single thirty-year-old woman established by the likes of Helen Fielding or Candace Bushnell, giving it a new meaning thanks to techniques faintly reminiscent of Raymond Carver and Virginia Woolf.

The opening sounds worryingly like the moral of an uninspired episode of Sex and the City: “All good secretaries will eventually find truth in the hearts of men” [3]. The main protagonist has a rather common surname, a touch of the starlet, and the possibility of greater achievements: “Winona Bartlett, Win to her friends” [3]. It remains to find out whether she will win the reader over. Just like Bridget Jones, she benefits from the appeal of the underdog: her status is, reassuringly and non-threateningly, that of an unenthusiastic secretary.

Yet we are told that “her nature was such that serving, subservience, and coffee service came easily”—a much bolder statement that puts the reader's sympathy in jeopardy, since no one likes “subservient” or “abjectly submissive” characters. Luckily, Winona is redeemed by her innate kindness—she even gets bossed around, we later learn, by her sister's schnauzer [126]—and, more importantly, her sense of humour, which is one of the book's major assets. Thus, when her employer presents her with flowers (a day late) for secretaries' day, she reflects, in free indirect speech: “How nice: Useless Weakling Appreciation Day. A new Hallmark holiday” [219].

Despite her hopes of making a living through artistic endeavours, Winona, an aspiring film-maker, has no awareness of abilities other than secretarial. Work is described as anaesthesia [20], to the extent that one may wonder whether this is a cynical view of the secretarial world (with “nylons” rather poetically described as the epitome of the secretarial experience [56]). Or it might be an attempt at depicting the disengaged youth of today; the heroine would argue that Melville's Bartleby is not so much a “first class loser” as a “force of nature” [101]. The essential point, however, is seemingly to demonstrate the anxiety of everyday situations through unusual language and perceptions—hence the title of the book, which is also that of Winona's prospective first film.

A sense of anxiety and estrangement is often conveyed through rich, unusual and quirky language. This is clearly a step up from Helen Fielding (although, to the latter's credit, the diary and burlesque genres preclude, to a large extent, the use of exotic vocabulary). Reality takes on a rather ethereal quality as new expressions are coined and as the heroine sinks deeper into a personal universe of distressed puzzlement. Her prospective film goes in that direction too: it deals with people who look at signs and think they say something different from what they really do [54], for instance “temporary fashions” instead of “contemporary fashions,” or “Find your personal loo” rather than “Find your personal Lord” [121]. Unsurprisingly, one of the few films explicitly mentioned is the very quirky Zazie dans le métro [22].

In the typical passage below, sentences such as “Everything didn't feel exactly right, but then again, why should it?” or “In a sense she wasn't really there at all” are reminiscent of inter-war women novelists, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Von Arnim or Virginia Woolf. Circular patterns entrap the main character as surely as in The Waves. The last sentence, where the realities of the world seem to evaporate into dizziness or at least meaninglessness, could even bring to mind the universe of, say, Raymond Carver's short stories or Paul Auster's Moon Palace:

Everything didn't feel exactly right, but then again, why should it? Winona had achieved, like a good air vent, climate control, a comfortable state in which the powers that be could barely touch her. In a sense she wasn't really there at all. [...] The brochure was purple, no doubt the color of passion. Was passion all there was for couples? Surely that was, or might easily be, part of it. The first letters of both Couples and Conference leaped off the top like bunny ears. Embossed around the edges, in a circular cat-chasing-its-tail pattern, were the words: joy contentment satisfaction vibrancy dialogue adventure humor passion forgiveness growth change enrichment security love. Winona had to turn her head this way and that to get at all the meaning. [39]

All the devices questioning the sense of the self, the world, or presence itself are interspersed with more down-to-earth and futile elements verging on the ridicule. The reference to purple as the colour of passion is derived from a world where Miss Jones has her colours done (in Fielding's The Edge of Reason, where she is discovered to be a “spring”) and where Miss Bradshaw—of the Sex and the City fame—will declare that purple is the new black, at least as far as Manolo Blahniks are concerned.

Comparisons (with, for instance, bunnies, air vents, and cats, as in the passage quoted above) are also part and parcel of the quirkiness of the novel, and rather specific to Shehan. You either like it or you don't, although her recourse to what seems to be the whole kingdom of small furry animals is likely to make you laugh at some point. Let's just hope it will be with a knowing smile of complicity rather than hoots of derision. Here are a couple of other instances:

Winona had kissed two men with hair around their lips. It was okay. It was like kissing a hamster. [15]
Silvester: it sounded like some tartan-wearing mouse from Hibernia. [107]
Winona mulled these things over in a furious little gerbil-on-the-treadmill panic. [39]
Plant life need not feel slighted, since other priceless phrases include “It was a real-flower-in-the-wee-vase joint.” [66]

Similarly, one may ponder the virtues (besides originality) of a recurring device consisting in using random news items to shed light on personal thoughts or general matters. The reader will thus learn that bats, a “disconcerting mix” of birds and mice, epitomize the genre of the novella [46]. Bees [87-88], the story of a fallen royal Indian dynasty [159-60] or a feature on the aerodynamics of feathers [170], no doubt designed to be equally edifying, are bewildering or at best quirky.

The dialogues—also resolutely offbeat—often succeed in being witty. There are contrived elements, such as a line (mis)quoted from Casablanca, seemingly thrown in for good measure on page 21: “Of all the gin joints in New York, she had to come into mine” (it's “walk,” not “come”). Yet, at the best of times, the heroine's statements are rather pert and amusing. Thus, on being asked about whether she has dealt with a new employment agreement (which she hasn't), she says: “I look in my in-box all the time. The wood-grain pattern is astonishingly lovely.” Similarly, she answers an inquiry about her hair colour with: “These are natural highlights. It said so right on the bottle” [32].

The Anxiety of Everyday Objects thus lurches between profundity and ridicule, the ridicule—and this may be where the originality of the book is the greatest—being derived from the currently popular universe of the professional thirty-year-old woman in search of love, identity and success.

Reflections on love and dating often read like the synopsis of a Sex and the City episode, including the humorous and spiritual modern executive woman's wisdom that made the series so successful:

It seemed that he wanted to date the old-fashioned way, with lots of Getting to Know Each Other. Winona liked the water but feared the approach—she'd just as soon dive in, not this toe-to-knee-to-thigh technique. [15]
It was a good era, the nineties, for even bohemians had begun to go to the gym, so even the dissolute artist would have pecs hard as underwater stones. [147]

Yet, in a way, expectations are both disappointed and exceeded: bypassing the commonplace and archetypal female gossip, the novel quickly gets at the quirky and the ethereal. The comfort food (Häagen-Dazs and scotch, the equivalent of Bridget's Milk Tray and vodka) doesn't appear until page 209. The classic Angst of the ageing single woman is present [76], along with the “who am I” questioning [82], but, thankfully, the ever-ticking biological clock and its like are absent: the only character who expresses a longing for children is, ironically, the male hero [154].

Along the way, Shehan swiftly debunks or hints at modern day phenomena: makeovers designed to reap women's money rather than enhance their lives [19, 137], the hypocrisy of the politically correct [55], Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus [59], the you-are-what-you-eat theory [82], or “the alone-before-The Simpsons aspect of [one's] meal[s]” [96], to name but a few.

Although such thoughts are usually expressed through the main character, the author is occasionally obtrusive, addressing the reader (“If you are wondering if she is pretty, this is the story”) or involving him through pronouns (“our heroine” [4]). It is difficult to suspend disbelief in the face of sentences such as: “Perhaps it's time to review Winona's romantic history. Where to begin, where, really, to end? It sounds pompous to say: she had loved. Nor would the count do—crass, too crass, not that we aren't frank here” [120]. However, such remarks may be useful to induce the reader to take into account the observational as well as the fictional nature of the book.

The plot is not by far the most crucial aspect of the novel, and this is fortunate, as it is often somewhat predictable. Rex Willard's entrance [21] leaves little doubt of his being a kind of Sydney Shelton character: the young and friendly, talented and promising guy who may eventually get the girl. However, the grotesque situations or caricatures of Fielding's Bridget Jones' Diary or Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination are altogether avoided. This is another genre altogether; the hackneyed theme of the thirty-year-old “singleton”—a term coined by Fielding—may safely be revisited.

A plot is distinctly traceable, albeit somewhat perfunctory—a detective story within the office, where the heroes defeat (within reason) their corrupted superiors. Special mention goes to the character of Sandy, a beautiful yet evil female character rarely found in fiction. The fourth and last section, called “Innocence—In which all is revealed,” serves as an elucidation and epilogue, although no denouement à la Hercule Poirot is to be expected.

As in 1930s novels, the subject matter and the action (or occasional lack thereof) are not so important as the way they are dealt with. Conveniently, though, the topic chosen is a light one which, at the same time, somewhat insolently and intelligently touches on the daily, petty yet potentially meaningful, dilemmas of the early twenty-first century. Just as Winona claims to be on “a reverse date, an etad” [62], this book may be seen as a reverse Bildungsroman (namorsgnudlib?), since the heroine seeks not so much a new identity as a return to the healthy human values of love and camaraderie, disposing of individualistic careerism and ruthlessness.


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