This guest post comes to us Sana Krasikov. Sana is the author of the short story collection One More Year.
Recently, in response to the launch of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, the literary critic Germaine Greer posed the question of why women don’t write more books about “Big Ideas.” Reaching back in time to examine Big Idea books by women, Greer wondered if women had the “necessary audacity” required to sell a hypothesis. To be fair, Greer was referring mostly to non-fiction books, but her question could just as easily be asked of fiction. Could it be true that women authors were “more interested in understanding than explaining, in describing rather than accounting for?” And does this keep them from garnering the kind of attention given to their more declarative and “audacious” male counterparts?
Considering these questions, I thought about a book I had read recently – Sigrid Nunez’s novel The Last of Her Kind – a book that, in addition to being beautifully written, was as much about ideas as it was about characters. Set at the tail end of the sixties, it follows the lives of two Barnard roommates – Georgette, who is from a small town in upstate New York where people drink “to keep their bodies warm, their brains numb… a world of everyday brutality,” and Ann, an earnest overachiever from Connecticut, whose family is so wealthy that her mother doesn’t carry a wallet when she goes shopping, having expense accounts at the major department stores.
Years after a bitter falling out, Georgette sees Ann’s name in the newspaper under the headline “Cop Killer.” She can hardly believe how a woman as idealistic and intelligent as Ann is capable of such violence. Though the press paints Ann as another Patty Hearst, a spoiled girl playing at Revolution, Georgette is convinced her ex-roommate’s story has a more complicated side.
Delivered in a warmly sardonic but unaffected voice, the prose doesn’t draw attention to its own genius in the way of a Mailer, or to its vigor in the way of a Thomas Wolfe. For long stretches of the book, turning the pages feels less like reading and more like listening to the sane voice of an old friend. And yet as much as it’s a story of two women, The Last of Her Kind is really an extended essay – a sober examination of the darker rhetoric of the sixties.
Here is a scene: Many years after she is raped, Georgette is invited by a professor who is a friend to discuss the experience with a group of college girls in the professor’s Women’s Studies class. Too uncomfortable to turn down her friend’s request, Georgette tells the young women that, looking back on life, she could point to many things that happened later which were worse than the rape, and which even made it seem like a minor event in her life. The students respond by telling her that she is “in denial” and “intellectualizing,” and in need of “emotional work” to understand the extent of her repression. The present-day framework of “trauma and recovery” makes it impossible for girls who came of age in the nineties to comprehend how, in the highly-politicized sixties, rape might have been viewed as an “insurrectionary act,” or how in some fringes of the sexual revolution, women might have thought it rude to sleep with only one man if there were two men in the room.
Rather than recalling the late-sixties and early-seventies as a progressive or enlightened moment, Nunez paints an age that left many casualties in its wake: a time when someone like Charles Manson could be hailed as a hero, a time when college professors received death-threats from radical students, a time when sex could be “not just a casual, but a meaningless act.” Describing her sister’s boyfriend, Georgette observes, “Roach looked like what he was, a survivor of an era that had tipped over into madness.”
The Last of Her Kind has been compared to Roth’s American Pastoral But a more apt comparison might be to Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Georgette’s disappointment with the mythic sixties reminds one of Lessing’s narrator’s disillusionment with the “glorious adventure” of socialism and the British Communist Party in the 1950s. Both novels are nods to George Elliot’s Middlemarch, which concerns itself not only with the souls of its characters but also with a larger, and more sweeping project of recording social history. All these books, written by women who explored politics and morality as two sides of one phenomenon, gain their effect not from proclamations, but from a kind of layering affect where ideas about class, altruism, and gender-relations are asserted, knocked down and revised at different stages of their character’s lives.
In the last pages of the book, a grown-up Georgette rants against that sacrosanct American novel, The Great Gatsby, which her teenage children are studying in school.
I think it is significant that The Great Gatsby’s reputation as the greatest masterpiece of the twentieth-century American literature did not blossom until the fifties, and that those most responsible for that reputation have been schoolteachers. It is such an easy book to teach. Short, clear, safe. What makes Gatsby “great”? How does Gatsby represent the American dream? What does the green light symbolize? What does the valley of ashes symbolize? What do the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg symbolize? Compare and contrast: East Egg/West Egg. Jay Gatsby/Tom Buchanan. New York/The Middle West.
In many ways, The Last of Her Kind attempts to be precisely the kind of novel that is not Gatsby – a book with ideas that resists being summarized into one Big Idea – in other words a book for adults.