Friday, July 2, 2010

Kate Atkinson's Not the End of the World: Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping

This is the first of a twelve-part series reviewing the short stories in Kate Atkinson's 2002 collection of short stories, Not the End of the World. In this particular story: goat cheese farming, exploding ATMs and mirrored-glass globes where nothing but the sky is reflected.

Spoiler warning in effect, obviously. I'm reading these one story at a time, though, so this goes both ways; if there's anything that happens in future stories that will reflect on this one, I don't know about it yet.

I finally made it to the library last week. There's no excuse for this; I work literally blocks away from one, and the library in my hometown isn't that far away itself. Commuting, however, can sap your will to do anything but collapse into a chair and watch YouTube videos. I don't even mind it as much as everyone expects me to.

And when I got there, I couldn't take my eyes off The Courage Consort, which I read last summer. I walked by it a few times, took it from the shelf, put it back, took it again, turned it over a few times in my hands, flipped through some of the pages. Books rarely affect me this way, after the fact, without even re-reading. Why now? Great cover design, perhaps. Amazing writing, certainly. But most of all, I think, is the fact that there are small worlds in there, gorgeous worlds, worlds that haven't quite been resolved like a novel would.

Lately I've been eying a couple short story collections, too, so I figured I'd get a head start and read a few.

I'll be reading them individually, not moving on to the next until I've posted. From what I can tell, and the few comments on the Internet I've read until I started getting spoiled and stopped, the stories are interconnected. For instance, the last story's called "Pleasureland," one of the motifs in today's story: "Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping."

Charlene and Trudi do in fact go shopping -- at a gift store, clothing store and sewing store, as well as multiple cafes and bars. There's also an apocalypse. Most writers have commented upon how the protagonists utterly disregard this. Trudi envies the 9mm submarine gun the blonde TV-station receptionist has at her desk. Charlotte calls Trudi to talk about bonbonnieres with sugared almonds as she's hiding from sniper fire.

Review: What struck me first is that it takes a good few pages (in a short story this length, that's ages) for Charlene and Trudi's ages to register. They're adults, but I'd be surprised if most readers placed them above eight years old. A few things cause this. The title, "Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping," mimics the title of a children's book -- substitute, say, Betsy and Tacy. The descriptions do too, filled with childlike wonder and lush prose describing honey and fountains and soap. It's as sumptuous as anything from Goblin Market. It's what children's book characters talk about when they imagine being grown-ups.

But then you get to "Charlene was a journalist with a bridal magazine" and go "wha?" And it's telling that my next thought wasn't "Wait, she's an adult?" but "Wait, bridal magazines are hiring five-year-olds now?" I suppose you could argue for the tequila reference, but Trudi talks about it in the same breathless reverie as anything else. Besides, that's just one paragraph earlier.

So Charlene and Trudi are infantilized, but it's odd; infantilism doesn't normally work this way, at least not the way our culture does it. Nobody, no societal force, is going to turn someone into a Frances Hodgson Burnett child. It's just not done. There's no profit in it. No, people are turned into commercial children, the kind of kids who'll turn around and try to sell you on this wonderful new insurance policy that is so much better than that lousy old one, please Mom, please? And can you buy me a side of sugar cereal served in a glitter tiara?

Which brings me to my next observation, although it should be fairly obvious given the title: everything in this story is commercialized. At first it doesn't seem so, but read closely and you'll find a lot of what might as well be product placement. The exact brand of cell phone. Clothing brands. You also have paragraphs full of food-porn about honey, dog breeds, wedding supplies, and even though there aren't any brands or anything there, everything that's mentioned is for sale, often in the same place the characters are. Chrysanthemum tea, golden needle tea, hubei silver tip -- they're all boxes sitting on the shelf waiting for purchase.

It's absolutely seductive. Advertising works less by selling you products than by selling you lifestyles, and that's exactly what happens here. Charlene and Trudy, and by extension the reader, are reveling in this gorgeous lifestyle, full of rustic pastoral beauty. Kind of like what's going on in this New York Times article, with the cottage. I'd love to live there, and I'd love to live the beautiful lives that drip off the page. And then I realize I'm caught, and it's unnerving.

You'll notice another thing about that NYT story, or at least how it's been blogged about: the gender politics. Woman: frilly white cottage; man: burly man-cave. (Or burly-man cave; hyphenate it however you want.) They're a bit complicated here. Sure, pretty much everything in this story is coded feminine: the weddings, the clothes, the decorations, and of course the shopping. That's part of what makes it so jarring when the guns and the riots show up. Looking at it a certain way, you could argue that both Charlene and Trudi are pretty much stereotypes, obsessed with babies and shopping and body image and weddings. The mere mention of -- well, pretty much anything -- is enough to make them swoon.

I don't think it'd be a valid argument, though. Keep in mind: there are no men in their imagined lives. In fact, there are barely any men in the story, certainly none with major roles. Trudi outright dismisses marriage when it comes up. As you've probably gathered by now, it passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. And of course it does: at heart, this is a story about friendship. The world might be crumbling around Charlene and Trudi, everything might be going to hell, and all their elaborate dreams might never be realized, but they have each other.

Miscellaneous: I absolutely love the following exchange:

"I've got an article to write." Charlene was a journalist with a bridal magazine. "Ten Things to Consider Before You Say 'I Do.'"

"Saying 'I don't'?" Trudi suggested.

Name Report: (I'm a name nerd. You'll see these for every story.) Could be better! Although I will note that Trudi hates her name, thinking it and Heidi should belong to milkmaids or hookers:

She had a twin sister named Heidi and neither Trudi nor Heidi liked her name. They were the names of goatherding girls and American hookers, of girls who wore their hair in plaits and drank milk or had sex dressed as French maids and nurses. Of girls who never grew up.

The jury is now out.

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