Tag Archives: karl ove knausgaard

Reviews of Books I Haven’t Finished: A Girl Named Zippy

17 Feb

Nothing alienates quite like a generally well-loved book that you dislike so much you have to put it down. What do they see that I do not? I find myself wondering. Am I crazy? Are they crazy? Finally, we have to agree to disagree, to dispel the mystery of our great differences with a cliche: it takes all kinds; there’s no accounting for taste; etc.

I pretty much knew I’d hate A Girl Named Zippy, by Haven Kimmel. Its cover hits all the wrong notes for me. I’ve never read a book with “girl” in the title, not Gone Girl, or Girl Interrupted, or The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, or Girl Raised by Wolves; I once bought a story collection called Out of the Girl’s Room and Into the Night for a girlfriend and she hated it. I didn’t much care for This Boy’s Life, by the way, but I suppose that’s a story for another day. I’m sure some of those “girl” books are good, but I object to the labeling aspect of it, the marketing code, the literary agent and editor and publisher and the marketing guru commanding them all who’ve agreed that if you put “girl” in the title, it will reach a certain audience, and so by all means one must put “girl” in one’s title, no matter how stupid it sounds. I like to think such marketing techniques don’t work on me. I switch deodorant and toothpaste and cereal brands every few months because I get bored with the same old thing and also because I hate the idea of loyalty to a corporation. I eschew rewards cards, regardless of what they promise to offer. I hate every airline equally. Online ads never reach me. Once I was trying to write a novel, and I thought one of the characters should wear a cowboy hat. For half an hour I looked at cowboy hats online, partly to procrastinate but partly to get a sense of the character; the novel was never published, but for over a year after that Amazon pestered me with cowboy hat ads. At first the constant ads were funny. Then the whole situation turned pathetic, like having some love sick stalker following you around every day, always trying to fix you with his sad but hopeful expression, begging for a bit of eye contact. Amazon, you just don’t understand me, and you never will, I wanted to explain. I think it’s best we just stay away from each other. Anyway, the other thing I disliked about the cover of Zippy was the picture of the baby. I actually like babies in person, sort of, but not on covers of books. This particular baby was kind of homely/cute, and the intent seemed to be a plea for sentimentality, pity, and a kind of guilt-inducing condescension. Aww, such a goofy-looking baby!

So why did I read it? My intentions were largely noble. I wanted to branch out, to learn something, to experience life as others do, to break out of what the kids call my “comfort zone.”

The truth was that I had always disdained memoirs, and then I wrote one. During the editing process, my editor actually asked me a read a few memoirs to make mine more like them and “less like a novel.” And so I read The Glass Castle, which I liked, a lot. And then The Tender Bar, which I liked less but still liked. And then I launched into a great autobiography kick that completely rejuvenated my love of stories, for by then, and without quite noticing it, I’d begun to tire of novels, and had already written off stories and story collections as mere showcases for MFA techniques. Fiction had simply become too fake-seeming to me. Please note, I don’t care at all whether a story is “true” or not, but I’ve grown lately to crave the illusion that they are true, and most of the recent fiction I’ve been reading seems to telegraph its artifice too clearly for my tastes. I’m now one of those people whose favorite writers are Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante; their books seem honest in ways that make other writers seem posturing. I also discovered Milan Kundera over the past couple of years, and though his stories may seem intentionally artificial, the ideas behind them, and the author’s voice, are authentic. I take books like The Book of Laughter and Forgetting as essays that use thin fictional stories to illustrate their points. So that’s what led to my experiment with A Girl Named Zippy.

Its marketing pitch was twofold: Zippy was funny, but more importantly, it was something rare if not unique: a memoir about a happy life. What can I say? Though Amazon wasn’t able to figure me out, this particular angle got through my defenses. I was intrigued.

I didn’t get far though. I don’t remember the final page number, and I put the book on a “free books” shelf, so I can’t pick out quotations to bag on–and I have to say I have no desire to insult or poke fun. I don’t recall anything about the first twenty or so pages worth ridicule. The writing wasn’t terrible or embarrassing, like the kind of stuff you see excerpted from Fifty Shades of Grey and the like. I just wasn’t into it. The “happy memoir” thing didn’t catch my interest, nor did I believe this particular claim of happiness. What I read didn’t strike me as funny either, though I could tell it was supposed to be. Reading it reminded me of a young guy I once met in a youth hostel, a twenty-something American who wanted to be a stand up comedian. He had the delivery down, but no jokes, nothing funny to say. Even so, he sometimes managed to get people laughing, at least late at night when everyone came back from the bars, drunk. The would-be comedian and Zippy shared this sense of someone working hard to be funny, begging for laughter in the absence of genuine humor in a way designed to guilt trip us into pretending to be amused, and perhaps even fooling ourselves into thinking we are amused, which introduces questions about authenticity, questions about the definition of “funny,” and “happy.” If we are laughing, we must be happy, mustn’t we? I get the feeling that maybe we’re not, at least, I certainly wasn’t happy or amused reading Zippy, so I closed the book, wished the author and her readers the best of luck, and moved onto something else.