July 2007

Krista Walton

fiction

Rules for Saying Goodbye by Katherine Taylor

Rules for Saying Goodbye is Katherine Taylor’s debut novel, in which the protagonist is named Katherine Taylor, and several aspects of the author and character’s lives intersect. But don’t call it a memoir. Maybe you can call it an autobiographical novel, but still, remember, this is fiction. And it’s literary fiction, to be sure -- not chick lit, as the author makes a point of asserting in interviews. You may have heard of Katherine Taylor (the author) elsewhere -- she’s hot (check out that book jacket), she participated in lightweight pugilism with Ben Kunkel (he took offense to her calling Indecision “simple”), and rumor had it that Rules would be picked up by and distributed in Starbucks -- the low-brow version of Oprah’s Book Club. And usually all of this is beside the point. But when the author and protagonist are so clearly closely related, it somehow becomes more relevant. Or at least more interesting.

In Rules, Katherine’s story begins when she’s an adolescent in a ho-hum agricultural town in California. She is sent to a boarding school on the East Coast, comes back to California for college, and eventually makes her way to New York City, ostensibly to go through the final growing pains of young adulthood; and here, about a third of the way in, is where the novel really starts. She dabbles in writing and falls into a destructive cycle of following men to Europe and returning to New York when the passive-aggression becomes unbearable. Her friends undulate in number and significance throughout the book, remarkable mostly for the number of vodka tonics and their clever remarks. She experiences heartbreak and dread and a dull depression, and, with more and more frequency, she begins to “pretend I am dead” when confronting uncomfortable situations. And, as dramatic as this all may sound, it somehow isn’t.

Taylor is a skilled writer, maintaining a consistent tone throughout the novel that squelches any sense of over-dramatization while teasing out endearing observations from the most commonplace events. She is never sensational, rarely trite, always smart. For example, rule number two: “Leave if he starts writing songs about other people. These will be songs of loss and their details will have nothing to do with you. Shame on you for dating a musician. At your age.” Or rule number 10: “Write a note on very nice paper. Make it simple. Dear Henry, I have loved you completely. Be too hurt to sign your name.”

The characters in Rules live charmed lives, and so can be alternately appealing and irritating; can’t only a very specific type of reader relate to a lovely young narrator who has a rent-controlled apartment in New York, works occasionally as a bartender, and enjoys jaunts around Europe? Does anybody care about another novel set in sexy Manhattan, where evenings begun in bars end in early morning and everyone is talented and witty? Like the ones in Brett Easton Ellis’s or Jay McInerny’s New York novels, the characters in Rules seem slightly bored with their own fabulousness.

It could be a coming-of-age novel -- indeed, Katherine must navigate getting older, losing loves, finding a sense of purpose -- but Rules lacks any hint of urgency or discovery. Events pump along at the lowest blood pressure possible. Break-ups are done with contrived dignity and self-consciousness. It’s entirely cinematic, as though Taylor had watched it all play out on film, distant and alluring. And, perhaps, in that sense, it is a coming-of-age novel for post-modernity, where life is only experienced at a remove through various screens, and we’re all starring in our very own memoir -- though ours, certainly, are nowhere near as glamorous as Katherine Taylor’s.

Rules for Saying Goodbye by Katherine Taylor
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
ISBN: 0374252718
320 Pages