Review of Nell
Freudenberger’s Lucky Girls
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/27/06
Nell Freudenberger is a perfect example of style over substance. She is what the damnable publishing industry has sunk to- attempting to take a mediocre workshop writer’s pedestrian prose and make a ‘hot’ writer out of her by publishing her obscenely long fluff tales in outlets like the Paris Review, Granta, and the The New Yorker, where she interned, having her pose sexily for magazines like Elle and Vogue, then offering her a half million dollar advance for a book of stories she hadn’t even written yet. On top of that she goes with the offer that allows her to ‘work with’ an editor- manifesting the fact that the young lady has not a clue as to what constitutes good writing, and then being able to come up with only five meager tales after a year or more of ‘hard work’. The tales, themselves, show no facility with dialogue, nor poetry, and cram so much banality and dull ‘incidents’ into them that one wonders what exactly Freudenberger’s editor did for that year. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a cutie-pie whom I wouldn’t have minded diddling had I met her on the arts scene when I was single, but….that doesn’t mean she’s an artist herself. Reading this excruciatingly boring and trite book only confirms that Freudenberger belongs to that long list of female wannabe artists-cum-divas that have no clue how dime a dozen they are, no matter how golden their pussies may be.
Perhaps her most obvious literary ancestor is not any formulaic New Yorker diva like Alice Adams, Ellen Gilchrist, nor Ann Beattie, but schlock formula ‘typist’ Mary Gaitskill, whose tales of retro-70s and 80s drug culture female losers Freudenberger seems desperate to run with, across the Pacific, to Southeast Asia. Think of her as the anti-Jhumpa Lahiri, yet another ‘babe’ writer with meager literary skills; although Freudenberger’s virgin effort makes Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize winning first book, Interpreter Of Maladies, seem like it was really worthy of such gifting. No, Freudenberger’s tales thankfully spare us Lahiri’s habit of ticking off exotic spices in her tales, but the truth is there’s really nothing to Freudenberger’s tales that’s even as musical nor, dare I say interesting?, as cumin or all-spice.
All of these tales follow spoiled rich, white American girls in their twenties to forties who simply have never found anything in their lives worth living for. And the tales that tell us these basic facts do nothing to change them, either. Almost all of them have bad families of the sort you see in arts films.
In the first, title story, Lucky Girls, which broke Freudenberger’s name in The New Yorker, whose very meaning is at odds with the tale- or more accurately, wholly disconnected from it, a girl in her twenties recalls her life as a mistress to an arrogant and emotionless man who has died. We get no real reason for why she would be attracted to this man, save it seems a nice setup for a story. This is the basic problem with Freudenberger’s tales- they are not rooted in reality. They are the fantasies of a child. The story veers wildly across time and space bur even this potential dizzying cannot distract us from the idea that this is yet another love story about a desperate pathetic woman, this time desperate enough to leave her life for a man with no discernible good qualities- none that the deluded gal even bothers to illuminate as she talks to the reader. Question- how many thousands of times has this same story been told? And better? Is the fact that it’s set in India supposed to ‘spice’ it up? This is the standard PC tack- take a cliché, add some literary all-spice, and voila- ‘literature’! Of course, all in the town know of the affair, including the man’s mother and wife, who sets up a moment of revenge that is, well, pathetic. And this is the dramatic high of the tale. You may be thinking, ‘Aha, so the title is ironic!’ Alas, no, for irony depends upon winding someone up enough to care that you deceive them. This tale is a snooze by page four of its twenty-seven pages.
Bad news, though, for it’s the shortest story in the book. Let me ask- do not editors have to ‘cut’ things anymore? It’s not like there was not alot of excess here. Freudenberger is clueless about poesy in prose, and her droning knows it, for the last paragraph has some faux attempt at poetry that is a) so-so at best, and b) really desperate looking knowing how barren of poesy the rest of the preceding tale is.
The next tale, The Orphan, is worse, if only because it’s even longer. It’s from the point of view of a woman named Alice, whose daughter calls her from Thailand to tell her her Thai boyfriend has beaten and raped her. Now, this is a standard Feminist ‘Men suck’ tale, except that, with the man being Thai it’s….you guessed it- exotic. Her daughter, Mandy, then denies she was raped, claiming cultural differences. A few months later Alice, her husband Jeff, and their son Josh, a college kid, come to visit for Christmas. We get revelations that growing up rich and spoiled was terrible on poor Mandy. We learn Jeff and Alice are separated, and Josh is a bit of an ass. The dialogue is excruciatingly bad. Freudenberger has absolutely no clue as to concision and mining the poesy out of the mundane. The boyfriend, Joo, makes a cameo appearance, just so Alice can fulminate, and then disappears. God forbid that a story set in Thailand might actually be about Thais, or even have a significant or real character. And, does Mindy have a mundane job? No, she cares for AIDS babies- this is a socially conscious young writer, after all. Bravo, Freudenberger! Of course, Freudenberger than tries to undermine the perception that she’s PC, as Mindy declares she might have liked being raped. I am reminded of an embarrassingly written scene in J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, where the lesbian daughter of the lead character declares that she will willingly put up with being raped as a part of the price for staying in the home she loves, and for the good of racial reconciliation in that country. As absurd as that claim by that character was, at least it was a rationalization. Mindy shows she’s just a vapid twit who wants to torment mommy. The message of this ridiculous tale is: ‘Life with a Thai rapist is preferable to life in dysfunctional white suburbia, even with over a hundred channels on satellite tv.’ Boy, and some dare to complain that the cookie cutter writers from workshops don’t tackle the ‘Big Issues’ anymore.
The middle story is Outside the Eastern Gate. The speaker is forty, and anomic. She recalls childhood life in India, and the family’s good friend Vivian. Mother runs away, and dies. Daddy goes bonkers. Years later the speaker goes to visit her dad in Delhi. In short, this character is ‘lost’. We get this from the tale’s opening:
I was supposed to be born in Delhi, but when doctors at AIIMS discovered that my blood was O negative, different from that of my mother and my father, they insisted that we return to Boston, where I was born at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital with no complications.
Not exactly a grabber, right? Anyway, we get pages and pages of dull
memories and banal interpretations of the self. It ends in a mess that goes
nowhere except to again tritely tell us that materialistic Americans are so
fucked up that if only we were more Rousseauvian, like the good Asians, our
lives would be better.
The fourth tale is called The Tutor and follows American Julia, in Bombay, and her Indian tutor Zubin, a boy. Neither college kid knows what to do with their live, although Zubin chimes in, ‘'When I’m here, I want to write about America, and when I’m in America, I always want to write about being here.’ Oh, decisions, decisions. Julia, of course, is presented as if she were a typical American babe, except that she’s traveled extensively to places like San Francisco, Delhi, Dallas, Moscow, and Paris. Just your average girl next door, eh? Guess what? She comes from yet another piss poor (emotionally, not financially) family, and is not close with her parents. Freudenberger can never be accused of having an imagination, at least. She can be accused of anomy, for this tale ramble son a good fufty-one pages, novella length, and the sort of ends with neither party knowing what to make of the other- their lives or genitalia.
The last story is the longest, and thus, mathematically, the worst. it is called Letters From The Last Bastion, and follows the tired epistolary formula. The only way these sorts of tales work is if there’s a) a good story, b) it’s told in truly convincing and realistic letters, not written as if a story in a letter, so that facts drip out slowly, and c) there is absolutely no didacticism. Pretty Freudenberger whiffs on all three points, but brethes deeply contrivance. The letter writer of this tale is the seventeen year old daughter of a published writer, who details her hero’s life to prospective colleges she’s applying to. She then riffs on his famed works, including the in-progress The Last Bastion. Could not this writer have not been clichéd even within this fictive realm? Apparently not, for she actually has her lead utter this cliché:
Henry says that a novel is a letter you write to someone you don’t
know; or someone you do know who is separated from you for whatever reason.
How the tale ends….um, badly, is irrelevant, because the details blur.
Perhaps I fell asleep. I forget. Sort of like the details in any of these tales.
This book of crap is what passes for ‘potential’- that buzzword wannabe blurbists ejaculate over. All the girls are apparently aspects of Freudenberger- down to their constant whining, moaning, and fucking. All the families are the worst stereotypes of what others call Ugly Americans. All the characters are rich- monetarily, not in characterization, and she never delves inside the minds of her foreign characters. Each story is all about her, and lack depth. Freudenberger thus narcissistically recapitulates all the flaws she repeatedly damns in her cardboard caricatures. The tales are dull, predictable, lacking any naturalistic flow, and void of any real skill- unless stiff, ungainly, flat phrases, sentences, and paragraphs pass for skill in these deliterate days. There is an utter lack of insight and joy to these stories, in their essence, their construction, and their creation, and it takes her four pages top state what a good writer can in a single paragraph. Another sign that she’s a bad writer is her distressing habit to always mentions better artists and writers in her tales, to show how smart and well read she is, as if mentioning Hemingway and Turgenev will cause their talents to migrate into her. Are there worse writers? Sure, but that doesn’t make her utterly generic workshop prose good, even by comparison.
Freudenberger seems absolutely clueless as to art and its process. In a conversation with her publisher, that’s online, she’s asked, ‘Did you grow up with dreams of making writing your life's work?’, to which she replies, ‘I don’t think I knew what writing was until I started to do it every day.’ I’m not kidding! Then the interview continues about her experiences in Asia, as if it were somehow more relevant than any ideas she might have on art, life, philosophy, etc. Of course, since the book details that Freudenberger can only grasp such ‘controversial’ ideas like, ‘Poverty sucks,’ and ‘AIDS babies suffer’, should anyone expect depth? What’s next, she’ll declare that nuclear war is bad for your health? In another online piece Freudenberger actually states this:
‘I like being published,’ says Nell Freudenberger, 29, very
soft-spoken and in India to promote her first book, Lucky Girls. ‘I
know you’re not supposed to say that because in graduate school, everyone
tells you that you’re supposed to write for yourself, for the internal feeling
and happiness it gives you, and not to be published.’
My only question is how
many salamis did this vapid ‘sweetie’ have in her mouth as she mumbled such
patently ridiculous and unwittingly self-damning nonsense? Even funnier is that
the piece tries to convey that Freudenberger didn’t shrewdly play the
publishing game, parlaying her New Yorker intern job-cum-sinecure into
publication in the 2001 Fiction edition of The New Yorker. The piece,
which declaims The Legend Of Nell Freudenberger, claims:
She shoved the story in a drawer for a couple of months, till her editor
at The New Yorker magazine convinced her to publish it in the
magazine’s fiction special. Then began a crazy adventure of sorts as
publishers offered her huge advances for book deals. ‘In a way it was scary,
but then I got a year off from work to write. I never really expected my work to
be published and be out there in a huge public space.’ She settled on a
$100,000 deal with a division of Harper Collins- for stories that were yet to be
‘I got a lucky break,’ says the writer who did her bachelor's at
Harvard and graduate degree at New York University.
Notice how, just as the
son of John Steinbeck claimed he was being ‘forced’ in to writing a novel by
his big, bad publisher, Freudenberger needed to be ‘convinced’, was
‘scared’, and merely ‘lucky’. With such humility, doesn’t it just make
you wish that she’d go down on you, and be ‘embarrassed’ to swallow an offer of
a three book deal with a half-million dollar advance, but turned it down for
only the hundred thousand advance so an editor would ‘help her’. What
exactly does that say of even her own opinion of her writing? Regardless, Lucky
Girls is third rate travel brochure writing with literary pretensions and a
healthy dose of Chick Lit. Were the tales set in Hoboken and Duluth, not Vietnam
and India, would even The New Yorker care? That all said, the publishing
idiots who thought they could promote this callow fraud into being a name bear
far more blame than Freudenberger does. I mean, if a little fellatio can get you
half a mill, why blame her for the TMJ or having to swallow? It’s at least a
more honest and direct way of succeeding to get a book published than having a
chic disorder or disease like Elizabeth Wurtzel or Marya Hornbacher, playing the
race card like Nikki Giovanni, kissing ass like a Bart Schneider, or being
relentlessly hip and PoMo like Dave Eggers. Funny, how writing excellently
isn’t on that ‘how to succeed’ list.
To close, most reviews and reviewers are bad, only serving to recap and blurb for the writers they cover, as if mere recapitulation equals critical review. I don’t do that. I’ll never do that. Criticism is evaluation, not translation. As such, Lucky Girls is a terminally PC, bad, albeit not terrible, book that is obscenely padded to make the five tales seem a real book’s length, and Nell Freudenberger’s future is bleak- not as an artist, since she’s not one, and I doubt even really believes she is, herself, but as a saleable commodity. That said, once her second and third books tank, and she’s officially declared a has-been by her former champions, do you think it’ll be any easier to get lucky with that girl?
Return to Bylines