Dog Days by Ana Marie Cox
Chick lit is usually about as intellectually stimulating as the latest romantic comedy movie, featuring women as congenially pretty as Kate Hudson and as morally grounded as Jennifer Garner. Their story arcs are similarly chaste -- three act narratives bursting with designer clothes and perfect boyfriends. In The Devil Wears Prada the heroine spends most of her time admiring the newest Gucci heels while her idyllic morality is challenged, broken, and redeemed. The newest addition to the genre, Ana Marie Cox’s Dog Days, starts out in the same vein. In the first five pages Cox drops designer names and beauty commentary like they are prerequisites for a class, and just as quickly manages to establish the Quirky Friend and the Love Interest.
Those perky markers quickly evaporate at the first appearance of the perennial “fuck,” clearly one of Cox’s favorite curse words. Cox’s background as the snarky and irreverent blogger for Wonkette, Washington’s favorite political gossip blog, shines through with each successive “fuck.” Variations on the word pop up throughout, in the form of “clearfuck,” “jesusfuck,” and sometimes, simply in a repetitious cadence. This irreverence is initially what sets it apart from Prada and the like, and is also what makes it smarter.
Our heroine is Melanie Thornton, glorified lackey in the D.C headquarters of a presidential campaign of a too-familiar stiff New England Democrat. In fact, much of this novel will be familiar, straddling that precarious James Frey line with characters like President Golden and his “Goldenisms” and poltical ex-wife turned blogger Teresa Altamont. These knowing winks at thinly veiled personas are common to the genre, but their PoliSci-major nerdiness makes them just a little more clever, and subsequently, a little less guilt-inducing.
The geek factor is only part of Cox’s general refusal to follow the chick lit rules. Melanie is unabashed in the ease with which she consumes liquor of all types, curses, sleeps with married men, and even lies to the greater political audience. When a group called Citizens for Clear Heads starts a campaign to debase Melanie’s candidate, she and her best friend concoct a scheme to distract the public, involving, of course, sex, blogging, and booze. Because Melanie is never as angelic as we might want to believe, she doesn’t go through the requisite fall from grace. In fact, when at one point Melanie suffers a bout of girlish compulsion, the narrator informs us of the resolution, “She would not devolve into Bridget Jones.” And Melanie never does, because, unlike most chick lit heroines, she doesn’t work for a magazine or as a nanny -- her job is more about brainpower than bikinis, and her attitude is more dirty than demure.
Cox comments on those problematic chick lit aspects with insightfully funny tangents. When Melanie considers the girls who carry tiny backpacks, she concludes that it must only be to communicate helplessness, to lure men to save them. But soon she realizes, “I’m the one with twenty pairs of three-inch heels. Who’s learned helplessness now?” While Melanie’s penchant for shoes and men may be symptoms of this learned helplessness, at least she knows it. Melanie may not be the prettiest or the most moral girl in the room, but she is rarely shown as dumb or unknowing, even when she breaks a heel while literally running to a secret tryst during the Democratic Convention.
Dog Days isn’t profound writing by any means. But then again, no one expects it to be. The chapters are short, the scenes jagged, and there are clumsy shifts in points of view. The character of the more glamorous best friend Julie never quite materializes -- her motivation is shaky at best, and her worthiness as a friend is constantly questioned. Cox does however have a way with dialogue, and the banter between Melanie and Julie is some of the best writing in the book, with Melanie coming back with lines like, “I understand Senator Santorum raises virgin staffers in vats.”
Sure, the book ends with a familiarly pat drive into the sunset, and Melanie goes through a cleansing process of sorts. The reader will probably laugh more than she will consider the issues. But this story is more about the hyped-up political heroes, sinewy melodrama, and smart obsessions of a girl working on a campaign. The designer name-drops and the hair products are thrown in there for extra sparkle. I, for one, can’t wait for the movie version.
Dog Days by Ana Marie Cox