February 2013

Batya Ungar-Sargon

fiction

Autobiography of Us by Aria Beth Sloss

Aria Beth Sloss's first novel, Autobiography of Us, is part of a current trend that overtly criticizes by covertly idealizing certain stereotypes of the 1950s. And like other examples of this current trend -- Mad Men, for instance -- the idealization reveals more about our own cultural conservatism than it does about the times it represents.

A quick comparison with a film made in 1958 will reveal that our conception of the 1950s is a product of our own fantasies. In Morton Dacosta's magnificent Auntie Mame, Patrick Dennis is engaged to Gloria and brings her to meet his aunt, Mame, who took him in when he was orphaned as a boy. Mame, played by Rosalind Russell as an eccentric free spirit, is most importantly loving, and heart-wrenchingly devoted to Patrick. Mame opens the door and a hand is thrust at her by a slim blond in a fur jacket, who, in a superbly manufactured imitation of Katherine Hepburn's Boston drawl, exclaims, "I can't tell you how pleased I am to meet you." In response to Mame's offer of food or drink, Gloria responds, "Oh, I couldn't possibly. We're on our way to Bunny Bixley's -- that's my friend who lives on Park Avenue and Seventy-first. Patrick and I just stuffed ourselves at Schrapps." Gloria is a co-ed, but when Mame asks her if she's chosen her major yet, Gloria stares blankly for a beat before answering, "Ah, well, just a general sort of liberal arts thing, you know, English lit and like that. Upper Richman's top drawer. Really top drawer." Mame downs her gin.

Most critics have read Gloria as a spoiled rich girl, but what this scene and the other Gloria scenes reveal is rather the 1950s ideal, mercilessly derided. Gloria's mother is the 1950s housewife par excellence, and yet she and her flowered dresses and her pretentions are the subject of delicious and relentless ridicule.

Auntie Mame was no marginal indie flick, but the highest grossing picture of 1958, and yet despite the mainstream mockery of 1950s ideals that were present in the fifties themselves, somehow, mysteriously, we in the twenty-first century refuse to believe that moviegoers in the 1950s would have recognized Donna Reed as a fantasy, rather than as an accurate representation of themselves. We cannot accept that even as Mad Men is our fantasy of the 1950s (with residual effects in the 1960s and even the 1970s), so too was it their fantasy of themselves, rather than a reality. For every Leave it to Beaver, there was an Auntie Mame or a Revolutionary Road (1961) or The Bell Jar (1963); for every movie or novel dictating the standards of the correct, there was another exposing the myth of the American family as corrosive, destructive, the tool of PR campaigns for vacuum cleaners and briefcases. To understand The Donna Reed Show (1958-1966) as representative of some kind of 1950s reality would be the equivalent of someone going to our theaters and concluding that vampires walk the streets of Seattle. While it seems that both Auntie Mame and The Donna Reed Show were fantasies -- representative of a culture flexing its ideological muscles -- our remakes of the 1950s seem incapable of imagining people back then as, well, imagining. This category error -- of mistaking a culture's fantasies for its reality -- represents only the conservatism of our own cultural moment (there's a reason the 1980s didn't produce Mad Men; when the '80s tried to make a film about the '50s, they ended up with Mommie Dearest).

Autobiography of Us takes us one step deeper into the myth of the 1950s. With a stately, emotionally distant father and a frivolous, meticulous mother, the narrator-protagonist comes of age in a 1950s Pasadena that could be the set for Mad Men Takes California. The story tells the tale of a friendship between two girls who later become two women, the bookish and loyal Rebecca and the unruly and self-destructive Alexandra, as they navigate the terms of being a woman in the '60s and '70s. The girls go to college, where suddenly their paths diverge, and they must figure out if there is enough between them, amidst betrayals and lies, to continue the friendship. The novel then follows Rebecca through her twenties into a life devoid of meaning until Alexandra reappears and havoc ensues.

One wonders why the charismatic and unruly Alex finds herself so compelled by Rebecca, or why the studious Rebecca puts up with Alexandra's lies, and even worships her for them. This happens all the time in real life -- we see these sorts of pairings constantly, find ourselves enmeshed within them, alternately depending ourselves on a quiet observer, or playing the audience to some fast-talking dame. The attempt to depict the mystery of female friendships, the erotic charge of their physicality, the pain of being betrayed but also the pain of betraying, is commendable in a culture suffused with bromances and charismatic men. Autobiography of Us portrays rather the charismatic Alexandra, the kind of girl who inspires loyalty in girls of lesser temperaments. But Alexandra's opening monologue about her new home -- "Hideous, all of it... You'll see. Eleanor's had the place done Oriental -- oh, I don't care for honorifics. It's Eleanor and Beau around here, and they'll expect you to call them the same. Anyway, the whole thing's silk and tasseled pillows and these awful little Chinaman figurines, which she insists positively ooze the West Coast esthetique. Meanwhile, I only know everything about California there is to know. It might have behooved her to ask my opinion" -- is a shade too close to Gloria, with not enough Mame. Her narcissism is pure, without any of the loving quality that the eccentric, irresponsible, fantasy female (now often played by Jemima Kirke) exudes toward her friends.

Sloss's attempts to transcend the 1950s' crimes -- homophobia, racism -- are dispensed with through clichés that reinforce certain stereotypes. Someone meticulous about clothing and furniture turns out to be gay! The maids of her friends' mothers are black! At one point a character blames another of having Stockholm Syndrome five years before the phrase ever appeared in print, and this anachronism is endemic to the novel's project as a whole. Sloss's attempts to bring to life the lives of girls and women who lived in the 1950s are belied by what can only be her own belief that they were less real, or less really compelling, than contemporary women. And yet, the friendship feels real -- dirty, messy, both parties clearly getting mutually exclusive benefits from it.

Sloss's aim was to breathe life into the stories of women who missed the women's lib movement by a hairsbreadth, to narrate the pathos of being almost liberated; it is a homage to her mother's generation. But her characters are kept from fulfilling their dreams by the same impediment that would have kept them from doing so today: a lack of conviction. They both get a top drawer education, and one female classmate even gets in to medical school in Wisconsin, yet decides not to go, for reasons not given. Richard Yates put it best with the quote from Keats that opens Revolutionary Road: "Alas! when passion is both meek and wild!" Yates's novel draws the 1950s as unbearably recognizable, horrifically modern. The quote from Keats acknowledges humans at their core to be comprised of fantasies in excess of their drab, quotidian existence, and yet too meek, too tame, to bring themselves to the fit of spontaneous combustion that would fully remove them from said drabness. This back and forth -- between the capacity to fantasize a grander existence, and the searing incapacity of being the person who might live that fantasy -- is poignantly present in Autobiography of Us, and yet Sloss blames the 1950s for it, rather than exploring this conundrum as a facet of being human. Of course, there were women who might have become leaders had they not lived in the 1950s, and of course, there were women, and blacks, and homosexuals, who were blighted by conservatism, but Sloss's main characters are blighted only by twenty-first century conservatism, which insists on idealizing its fantasy of 1950s misogyny, homophobia, and racism. You might ask, Don't the meek also deserve to be written about? Certainly, and yet, to place them in a scenario and blame the scenario is misleading.

Autobiography of Us by Aria Beth Sloss
Henry Holt and Co.
ISBN: 978-0805094558
304 pages