Two novels by young American women writers popped onto the literary scene in the past month or so; Wreck and Order (perhaps poorly titled), is a debut novel by Hannah Tennant-Moore, and Innocents and Others, the fourth offering by Dana Spiotta, one of the world’s most astonishing newer talents. What these two novels have in common, loosely, is that both examine the number(s) and kind(s) of choices offered to and for younger women from first world countries, so that we readers have our first real looks into the minds of a completely different, new generation of women writers, who would be the children of the baby boomers, in most cases. And what choices these women offer–to themselves, to their readers, to the culture at large. And both write with extraordinary capability: Spiotta, whose earlier novel Stone Arabia I found to be one of the best offerings two years ago, is already a master at both prose and plot, and none other than George Saunders, writer extraordinaire, is quoted favorably on
the book jacket of Innocents and Others.
Tennant-Moore’s protagonist, Elsie, is a young woman , whose parents, like in so much contemporary fiction by younger writers, are divorced and strange (Ann Beattie looks at these younger Americans both from the points of view of the parents and of their twentysomething children in her recent short fiction, much underrated by sour New York Times Book reviewers. Raised loosely by an eccentric father with some money of his own, Elsie wanders, drifts, mainly (of course) through the landscape of Southern California, America’s Geographic Homage to losers and drifters. In spite of immense gifts as a writer, Elsie decides to skip college and to travel. Most of her traveling is in and and out of beds with destructive men, to whom she is repeatedly attracted (Tennant-Moore’s description of this woman’s active sexual life may still shock some, mainly because it’s written by and about a woman). Elsie, aware of this tendency, is attracted to forms of BDSM, such as strangulation, as part of her lexicon of sexual desire and its outlets. Her relationship with one man, whom she meets in a small town in Southern California, represents one pole of her character, and the author is extremely persuasive in explicating why young, brilliant Elsie is attracted to this men, and other men like him, a very liberated view of why some women are attracted to bad guys–since some bad guys aren’t all bad, and Elsie’s choosing this man/these men.
In order to jump start her life (she’s aware of the drift), she chooses to go to Sri Lanka to pursue a budding Buddhism, and her travels through that troubled country make up the most fascinating parts of this novel. She stays in cheap guest houses, often filled with floating Eurotrash, but she does have a great ability to find meditation places, where she’ll take up residence for several weeks. She also meets a young Sri Lankan woman, who begins to correspond with Elsie by email as Elsie floats back and forth between California and Sri Lanka. (Being a single white woman in that particular country is described with brilliance and insight: Sri Lankan men are nearly sexual predators, and Elsie will indeed be raped once). On a return visit to Sri Lanka, she spends two months with her new friend’s family, celebrating a family ritual/rite, and she is integrated into this very poor family as the guest of honor (how food is used to appeal to guests is often very funny in this novel). And although Elsie has some minor concerns that her friend is using her as a meal ticket to come to America at some point, a series of family tragedies will keep her friend from pursuing her education, as she sees her role and duty as a daughter, after the death of her mother, to take care of her abusive, sickly father, and to marry a man arrange through families, and give up her ambitions to go to university and , well, liberate herself. Our Elsie begins to see that her friend is possibly choosing this life of duty and marriage as part of the millennia of Sri Lankan/Buddhist culture, and she wonders whether her own plethora of choices, choices without duty or obligation, is such a good life after all. She is, basically, questioning the differences between liberty and license, and the cultural differences between these two women make the climax of this novel exceptionally fine, complex and unresolved, tho Elsie is partly transformed by the Buddhist culture of Sri Lanka, and by the value choices made by her young female friend, there. Tennant-Moore weaves these different strains of female sensibility and liberation, duty and freedom, through these two characters in particular; whenever Elsie feels down and out, she’ll contact the lover in California, whom she increasingly sees as the loser he is. Wreck and Order is in its way a rite of passage novel, but one which really does break
new ground as we come to understand the different kinds of choices available to younger women globally, while also comprehending how Elsie uses and manipulates her own sexuality both for her own benefit and for her own bad times and choices: this novel is extremely candid and has passages of real brilliance in its writing and its metaphysical, philosophical underpinnings. At times, the plot’s a little messy, and we tire a bit of Elsie, but I think that Elsie tires of herself as well. Tennant-Moore offers us some of the downsides of American liberated young woman, but Elsie’s increasing self-awareness makes us first respect, and , ultimately, like and admire her. Wreck and Order is a phenomenal debut offering.