This Beautiful Life — Helen Schulman

I heard about This Beautiful Life in a New York Times review and immediately worried: the novel sounded similar to the novel I’m working on that doesn’t have a title (I’m referring to it as “The Teacher Novel”). But reading This Beautiful Life makes me happy because the Teacher Novel is definitely not worse and almost certainly better. This Beautiful Life is too frequently boring; it’s disconnected from itself (the very short first and last chapters are effective and engaging, however). Anita Shreve’s Testimony and Tom Perrotta’s Election cover similar territory far, far better.

Other comparisons work too. Reading the first long section of This Beautiful Life, which belongs to Liz, the mother, made me reread the first three chapters of The Great Gatsby, because Gatsby isn’t just better, it’s on a whole different plane, even though it’s also covering the banal problems of rich New Yorkers. Gatsby retains its ability to amaze, especially at how deftly Fitzgerald transitions from scene to scene. He’s so damn technically good that 1) I wonder / doubt if I’ll ever do anything as good and 2) Schulman looks unfortunate in comparison (funnily enough, Jake, the 15-year-old boy, reads Gatsby towards the end; I wonder if he learns anything).

Schulman avoids transitions by not writing much in scenes. There are some good sentences (one example: Liz, Jake’s mother, notes his height and says that “It was as if, suddenly, three extra vertebrae had been added to the staircase of his spine”) and amusing bits, but most of the novel isn’t composed of scenes, and the writing isn’t quite enough to make up for that. I feel like I’m reading weekend New York Times articles on overly yoga-ified Upper East Siders. The novel lacks the fiery pop at the end of Election‘s chapters, as it does tension. The father, Richard, has the strongest section, mostly because he actually does something, instead of sitting around being acted on.

Like Testimony, This Beautiful Life has the problem of having a single, main event, without any other plot points or subsidiary issues, but Testimony has more voice. It has more knowledge of itself. This Beautiful Life also got a moral problem: a 13-year-old girl named Daisy sends a 15-year-old guy named Jake a sex tape, and he forwards it to one person. Who cares? She did it willingly, and although she’s young it’s apparent she has sufficient knowledge and agency of what she’s doing to make the question of her agency unimportant. The novel is set in 2003, which is essential: if it were set closer to the present, the idea of a sex tape becoming a social conflagration beyond the confines of high school would be wildly improbable.

I feel like the New York Times reviewer, Maria Russo, read an entirely different book than I did, or hasn’t read This Beautiful Life’s predecessors. Schulman teaches in New York, and I wonder if getting the cover of the book review was a sweetheart deal with Russo, her agent, and/or the book review editor (if so, I’d love such a deal). Not everything that makes the NYT Book Review cover is aesthetically or intellectually interesting (here I’m thinking of Angelology, an utterly forgettable book). Russo assume that social and cultural mores are permanent (“What can the future hold for unformed, vulnerable kids who bumble their way into the lowliest realm of the permanent record that is the Internet? (Or, in Daisy’s case, reach it by simulating sex with a toy baseball bat.) Should their parents be held responsible, or are they equally victimized by the seductions and traps of digital life?”) instead of fluid. Russo gets to the idea that cultural mores, but not until the last paragraph. I would’ve liked a stronger historical sense. These criticisms may be due to the brevity of the venue: the NYT only allows so many words, and I think her review is in the neighborhood of 1,200.

I suspect that, if it hasn’t happened already, sexting will be pretty normal and not enough to drive plots in the near future. For guidance on changing mores, look to the past. In 1900 – ~1965, you could drive plots using the question of whether teenagers have sex, given how much of society was set up against that. Today, if you did the same, you’d have to use religious prohibition or something similar to drive the plot, which isn’t very satisfying because the solution (“stop being a religious wacko; your parents are unreasonable”) is obvious. Caitlin Flanagan get some, but not all of this—I’ve seen her work in The Atlantic. We’re seeing the phenomenon of “shocking” behavior becoming normal much faster than we used to, which makes me worried about the Teacher Novel, because it might not age well if behavior considered daring or inappropriate today becomes obvious tomorrow. Fortunately, I think the central questions avoid sex tape plots, but still: looking at changes throughout history make me wonder what’ll happen next.

For example, one grad seminar assigned Dreiser’s famous novel Sister Carrie, which was apparently shocking for its day (IIRC, it was published in 1900, though it might be a little later—1910?). Reading it now is banal. Who cares if a woman divorces one guy and marries another? I wonder if these narratives about teenage sex tapes will have the same effect in the nearish future, once people who’ve grown up with sending naked pictures of yourself as a standard practice; Penelope Trunk gets this, but she’s uncommonly opened minded, and I sense a generation gap (am I on the wrong side, I wonder?).

The first and last pages of This Beautiful Life are very good and describe Daisy. The sex acts that begin this novel (and Testimony) are effective attention-getters because most people don’t believe or want to believe that 12- and 14-year-old girls can be sexual (raising the question: have most people forgotten what it’s like to be 12 – 14?). The second paragraph is a single sentence: “Still think I’m too young?” It’s a provocation, but the description isn’t sexy: she has “a hunky ponytail” and “A little roll of ivory fat nestled above the waistband” of her skirt. The suggestion is powerful anyway, and the pages to follow are largely the lead-up and comedown from the two that begin the novel. This has the unfortunate side effect of draining narrative tension; Election avoids this problem through a shadow story about how the party happens, which isn’t revealed until the very end of the novel. This, along with the sheer diversity of voices, makes it a better novel.

Still, This Beautiful Life is a reminder that the novel as a genre is still going places movies and TV can’t or won’t. If a director portrayed a video of a girl who in this scene: “The breasts inside were small, and at first she covered them with her palms, fingers splayed like scallop shells. Then she unhooked the bra in front and they popped out as if on springs”, she’d be arrested for depicting someone under 18 in a sexualized circumstance with nudity. The director could hint and imply but couldn’t show what the novel describes.

I have to read the first paragraph of the second section ironically: “As with so many things of consequence, it all began with a party.” It seems highly unlikely that many “things of consequence” started with a party; an idea, a conversation, a scribble in a notepad, maybe, but a party? Seems improbable. Pages 10 and 11 of the hardcover have a lot of superfluous stuff. I took a picture of a page with my edits, where I remove sentences the book doesn’t need. In rereading of Gatsby, part of what’s so amazing is how essential most of it feels. So mysterious. We don’t even meet Gatsby until chapter three, and then by accident. One of the novel’s letdowns is in Chapter 6, where Nick suddenly regurgitates a bunch of stuff about Gatsby’s supposed background (this is similar to what Mark Sarvas mentioned in 2007: that it’s important not to become overawed by the great). Too much of the novel should be tightened like the face of the mothers Liz lives among. On page 100, “Richard felt the skin on his face tighten.” You could remove that sentence and lose nothing. There’s also a strange mistake: Schulman writes URLs as “feigenbaum/,” when Blogspot URLS are always in the form It’s minor, but it galls.

So do aspects of the characters. Take this early scene from Liz:

It’s your butt or your face—you can’t have both, Liz thought. Some movie star had said this; she’d read it or heard something like it somewhere, and had stored a smudged replica of the quote in the hash of celebrity trivia her brain had accumulated without effort, along with all the other stuff and nonsense that passed for knowledge these days from print magazines and whatever: TV, the Net, idle chitchat, the air . . . But it was true, about your butt or your face.

The “hash of celebrity trivia” is what’s so odd to me about Liz: she used to be an art historian. She got a PhD in art history. Yet little to no knowledge of art, art theory, aesthetics, or related subjects trickles into her thought. By now I’ve met lots and lots of academics, and the ones who stick it out to the PhD don’t do so for the money, which is practically nonexistent; they do do so for the love of their subject. It’s bizarre that Liz imparts so little of this in her thinking; she says that “her dissertation had distinguished itself because she’d focused on the synthesis of art, design, and dance in a new and radical way” {Schulman “Beautiful”@38}. But what way is that? How does it differ? Liz “couldn’t remember the subtitle” of that dissertation, which is understandable: titles are easy to forget. But much of the content appears to have gone the way of that subtitle. If art plays a real role in her present life, it’s well-hidden.

People’s professions cast shadows over their conversation, but Liz’s appears to be a veneer that lies no deeper than the letters after her name. What happened to all the knowledge she must have acquired? Why doesn’t she ever think in ideas? Characters content to surf on the world of everyday minutia are boring; one thing that sets science fiction apart from other kinds, at least in the view of Neal Stephenson, is its focus on ideas. He elaborates in this Salon interview, where he defines science fiction’s big tent as

Fiction that’s not considered good unless it has interesting ideas in it. You can write a minimalist short story that’s set in a trailer park or a Connecticut suburb that might be considered a literary masterpiece or well-regarded by literary types, but science fiction people wouldn’t find it very interesting unless it had somewhere in it a cool idea that would make them say, “That’s interesting. I never thought of that before.” If it’s got that, then science fiction people will embrace it and bring it into the big-tent view of science fiction. That’s really the role that science fiction has come to play in literature right now. In arty lit, it’s become uncool to try to come to grips with ideas per se.

Knowing something of celebrity gossip doesn’t automatically preclude one from having ideas, thinking about ideas, or thinking about what might go beyond the tiny halo of an individual life. Thinking about ideas also isn’t incompatible with worry about the body, sexual attractiveness, how others respond to the body, and so forth. But this moment is emblematic of why Liz, as a character, tends to be boring: she doesn’t have access to those ideas. The writing isn’t as crisp and mysterious as Fitzgerald’s (but then again, whose is?). The structure isn’t as sharp as Shreve’s or Perrotta’s.

If Liz had really been the house intellectual, the person who understands the deeper cultural structures underlying what her family is going through, she could’ve been a fascinating character. Instead she seems to have hung up her mind when she became a former. I suspect not all women do. The noun she uses in the passage above—”trivia”—is the problem: her life appears to have become trivia. This isn’t a fact that dooms her altogether, but if you can’t rise beyond trivia, then why bother? And I’m not asking that she cite Foucault or tedious theoretical windbags; I’m just asking for more awareness of her own situation. Give me some cool ideas about what things are about. Literature that endures has ideas; Jane Austen, whatever her faults, is constantly questioning how families and social relationships should work. Her characters are attuned to the minutest questions of status. I’d like to see the same here.

Liz has some faint idea of her problem, since she notes the “nonsense that passed for knowledge.” But it doesn’t pass for knowledge “from print magazine and whatever:” it passes for knowledge because she consumes it. Anytime she wants, she can skip US Weekly and pick up The Atlantic. But she doesn’t.

This passage isn’t bad on its own; if it were embedded in a story with more power, I’d take from it what I think Schulman was shooting for: Liz’s struggle with the wealthy but stultifying environment she’s in and can’t easily leave without harming her family and her husband’s work. It’s a worthy struggle, but a frustrating one because Liz should have the intellectual and financial tools to understand it. But she chooses not to use them, and a character who seems pointlessly helpless is a tedious character too. And Liz does have some real thoughts. In this scene of self-criticism, she’s looking at her ex-flings writing and says:

He was smart, funny, but still immature. He hadn’t seemed to have developed distance from his own dilemmas or learned how to structure a narrative. At what point did potential, budding and nascent, turn into stagnancy? At what point did stagnancy equal tragedy? Is that what made midlife unendurable for so many? Is that what made each and every day feel so damaging?

All this is plausible, and notice how she moves from the guy’s writing to her own life: she stats off talking with him, and by the second sentence you still think she’s talking about him. By the third—”At what point did stagnancy equal tragedy?”—you get the idea that she’s not talking about someone else. She’s talking about herself, as critics so often are when they write criticism. So she gets some self-analysis by the end of the story.

So does her son. Jake is uncommonly knowledgeable, like so many adolescents in fiction; he notes how teenagers mostly “walked around, calling out to one another, ‘S’up. S’up.’ It was rhetorical, not ever a question. Nothing was up, usually, unless something was. They were kids; they were terminally looking for something to do.” They don’t find it. At the very least, this passage feels dangerous, knowing what we know about the novel from the dust jacket and the first two pages. There’s a sense of a transgression. But you’ve read these scenes before, especially if you’re a regular young adult reader, but Jake’s crush on a girl of Chinese descent is endearing; he notices what she wears and “thought Audrey’s haircut made her look French, although he had no idea really what that meant.” Who does, really? Maybe someone who’s read La Seduction. That he wants Audrey drives him forward and toward Daisy, who wants him and sets about luring him via video. Lesson: people do strange things for love. Perhaps it’s a lesson we already know, but so it goes.

He understands Daisy slightly better than his mother does: Liz says of Daisy, “That poor, wretched, stupid girl. Marjorie says the mother’s always away somewhere, that even when she was little she was always picked up by a nanny.” As if someone who wasn’t picked up by a nanny would automatically never make a sex tape. Plus, Daisy presumably wouldn’t have made the tape if she didn’t think it was a good idea; perhaps she has a high discount rate, and adults, with lower discount rates, are thus unhappy because they’re judging someone they don’t understand. Her husband does the same thing, but intentionally, to a reporter. He says that of the video “It looked like a junior league Debbie Does Dallas. I don’t know where the girl learned this stuff.” The answer is obvious: the Internet. Of course, lots of people “learn” stuff of this nature from the Internet and turn out to be perfectly okay, as Daisy does.

But Richard understands something that he doesn’t want to define; he watches the video (all the adults do, and one gets a prurient swirl of surveillance). When he does, he uses standard moralistic language, but he also notes, basically, that it’s also hot, a way similar to some of the comments in Testimony, when either Mike or Rob is describing the tape of Sienna. If someone is being intellectually honest, they have to acknowledge that erotic power isn’t flipped on like a switch when one turns 16 or 18. In some people it develops early. When Richard sees the video, he also says:

And for all the video’s dismal raunch, its tawdriness, for all its sexual immaturity and unknowingness, there is something about the way this girl has revealed herself, the way that she has offered herself, truly stripped herself bare, that is brave and powerful and potent and ridiculous and self-immolating and completely nuts.

He’s right; the nuttiness, the sense of going beyond the bounds, gives the video its power (does this language sound familiar? It’s similar to how I described Ariel Sands’ Never the Face). In the end, there can be something about such a video. Richard doesn’t understand everything; he says that “It looked like a junior league Debbie Does Dallas. I don’t know where the girl learned this stuff.” The answer is obvious: the Internet. Of course, lots of people “learn” stuff of this nature from the Internet and turn out to be perfectly okay, as Daisy does. The novel needs to be set in 2003, because if it were set in 2011, a viral sex tape wouldn’t be so shocking, and I’m somewhat confident that high school students have developed antibodies for the event (from what students tell me, that’s true).

What’s normal today may not be normal tomorrow, and, thus, the worries about the tape might eventually be as strange to us as Seventeenth Century European schisms and wars. Manufactured drama around sex can make the amorality of Gossip Girl attractive by comparison. What would Blair say to Jake and Daisy?

Virtually everyone in this novel is reacting to things. Jake reacts to Daisy. Liz reacts to circumstances. Richard reacts to Jake. The only person who really acts on their own volition in the novel is Daisy; if anyone’s the hero, she is. That the hero gets to say so little is unfortunate. Notice how The Great Gatsby is driven by several great wants: Gatsby’s for Daisy; Daisy for excitement or some way out of her stultifying life with Tom (he who cites The Rise of the Coloured Empires), Nick’s for figuring out who Gatsby really is. Without all that want, like the voice of “I want, I want” in Henderson the Rain King, you wouldn’t have a story in The Great Gatsby. You’d have a series of still lifes. This Beautiful Life is more animated than a still life but less than The Great Gatsby. It shows so much promise, and The Great Gatsby keeps creeping up in it.

She’s gotten a lot of good press. The NYT review is above; the Paris Review blog interviewed her. The Washington Post has a banal review not worth linking to. Reading such reviews reminds me of why I like James Wood so much, even when I disagree with his assessments.

One response

  1. Pingback: Sexting and society: How do writers respond? « The Story's Story

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