Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell

I’m a little sad that my first book talk here at Blue Lit is not going to be the celebratory, hyperbolic praise fest I wanted it to be when I got this book for the holidays.

I found out about Elissa Schappell when I was on Tin House’s website, looking at their writers’ retreat 2012 faculty.  Elissa Schappell is among them.  She’s also a founding editor of that publication, and I am really enjoying my subscription to it.  She’s a former editor of The Paris Review, which sparks its own set of expectations.  So perhaps my guesses about this book were hyped by Schappell’s literary pedigree.

This is a large press book: Simon & Schuster.  Schappell is–as literary writers go–a pretty big deal.

This book–unlike any collection of short stories I’ve read–took me a long time to read.  I was not dying to get back to it.  I’ve nearly finished Particia Damery‘s Snakes in about three sittings. With Blueprints, I would read a half story here, finish it four or five days later, not remember what happened first, etc.

The writing is competent, certainly.  There are funny bits and tragic bits and familiar bits, and there were two stories I liked in particular, that did draw me in deeply.

I’ll talk more about that in a moment.  For now, the thing that puzzles me most about this book is this: it is hailed as “loosely connected short stories.”  Schappell herself talks–in this interview with the L.A. Times–about how the connection is more thematic than narrative.

Here’s what I know about being a writer: if you are honest to the process, to your own process, however that comes out for you, the themes will evolve naturally, without intention.  If we embrace the characters as they develop in our minds, connections will occur.  We writers remember vividly, feel deeply, are wildly dramatic (but self conscious about it) and become fascinated by specific, narrowly-defined things in a succession.  These things can be any things: ideas, objects, philosophies, and on. Sometimes we pan out and embrace scope of things, or we move on to more things.

Justine Musk wrote about this writerly evolution here.

Schappell said that she felt like she was cheating on the novel she was writing while she was writing these stories.

I would posit that these stories are the novel she was writing, and that the reason I wasn’t in love with them is that they weren’t being honest with themselves.  There are probably three novels here about fascinating women from fascinating places with fascinating, but familiar, obsessions. Instead of relying on feminist criticism to connect them, to make them into something relevant, they should’ve just been called short stories.

Or the work should’ve been developed into a novel or three.  The characters and frameworks are there.

I get frustrated all the time when I edit romance authors who beat me over the head with some trivial plot fact that the reader can remember or get on her own.  I feel equally vexed by the notion that Blueprints is good literature because it’s feminist, as even its book jacket seems to self-consciously suggest, stopping short of using the actual f word: “In these eight darkly funny linked stories, Schappell delves into the lives of an eclectic cast of archetypal female characters…to explore the commonly shared but rarely spoken of experiences that build girls into women and women into wives and mothers…”

Going over and over self-analytical reasons I might’ve been put off by this book–I really, really wanted to love it–, I came up with the following: I don’t like the characters; these stories make me jealous because they’re kind of like some of the ones I’ve written, and nobody’s falling all over themselves to publish me at Simon & Schuster; I’m grossed out by frats (but weirdly not by farts)…

And while all of these things are at least partially true, one of my favorite authors always  writes characters I don’t like, wouldn’t have coffee with, would run the other way if I saw them on the street.

I am jealous.  But that’s normal.  I’m jealous of Amy Hempel and Lorrie Moore, too, and I still love and admire and read everything they write.  Also, I’m 31.  By the time I’m 40, somebody will be falling all over themselves to publish me (ha!).

And modern (as in 1980 and on) frats are, without question, one of the worst consequences of normalizing higher education, but again–I typically love stories that are grotesque or dark or uncomfortable, especially if they are sexy or salacious or contain the artful abuse of substances.  Many of these are and do.

The ones I liked

“Aren’t You Dead Yet?” and “The Joy of Cooking” were the two stories that haunted me.  “Aren’t You Dead Yet?” was one of those admirable pieces that manage to bring you over a long stretch of time without making you stop and say, “hey wait a second.  When did that kid who was all elbows and knees become a physician?” We have all known and been these characters, and Ray’s, narcissism and obscene jealousy of Beth,really do call the differences between the way women and men navigate and attribute success to light, and the differences between what the two genders can get away with.  I read the whole story in one sitting because I couldn’t stop, and when it was over, I was sad because I wanted to spend more time with Ray & Beth, even though Ray made me bilious and pissy and ready to get militant.

“The Joy of Cooking” is a sad story about a mother and a daughter.  It is touching and funny and you should probably just read it. It originally appeared in One Story. My favorite image, however, is of the daughter stitching up a game hen with three stitches of embroidery floss.  Or was it yarn?  It doesn’t matter.  The thing is, this one is perfect.  It’s told almost entirely over the phone, and that convention less well rendered would be gimmickey.  But here, it’s exactly right.  It creates this tension that swells in your chest while you read, and you don’t even know it.  When the story is over, you deflate like a balloon–in a good way.

Should you bother?

I don’t know.  Yes?  I mean like I said, some startling images, some really lovely moments.  Do I regret having read this collection? Not mostly.  Will I rush out and scoop up the very first new Elissa Schappell book?  Unlikely.

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