Just finished and loved THE BAD GIRL by Mario Vargos Llosa. For the most part it seemed to draw reviews that strike an “entertaining but not nearly his best” kind of note, except for this New York Times piece by another of my favorites, Kathryn Harrison (her novel EXPOSURE one of those books I would have killed to have written, she does this sense of literary-realist psychological harrowing menace like no other contemporary writer I’ve encountered). I know that Harrison has a fascination with and sense of sympathy for the ‘bad girl’ and seems interested in seeing her rescued from the shallow clutches of the femme fatale stereotype (not that there’s anything wrong with a good femme fatale) and cast in more complex and interesting terms.
THE BAD GIRL references Flaubert’s MADAME BOVARY in many ways and reading it makes me eager to pick up Llosa’s study of BOVARY called THE PERPETUAL ORGY (and how can you go wrong with a title like that?). From Harrison’s review:
“it is because she feels that society is fettering her imagination, her body, her dreams, her appetites,” Vargas Llosa writes in “The Perpetual Orgy”, “that Emma suffers, commits adultery, lies, steals, and in the end kills herself.” Llosa’s bad girl suffers, too, even as she makes those around her suffer. Though she tries to temper her restlessness and limit her aspirations, she cannot reconcile herself to the suffocation of petit- bourgeois existence any more than Emma can. “A man is free, at least,” Emmaa observes, praying the child she carries is a son, “free to range … to surmount obstacles, to taste the rarest pleasures. Whereas a woman is continually thwarted.”
The heroism of both women is that they refuse to be diminished by modest, reasonable hopes or by respectable society. Creatures of appetite — for sex, money, excitement, life — bad girls serve their hunger first, and last. They are terrible and they are enviable, because they won’t settle for less than everything they want. Because, in the end, they accept not only their essential nature, but also the consequences of their choice to fulfill rather than deny it.
I was never required to read MADAME BOVARY for school so read it on my own one university summer — I still remember my father’s bewilderment that I had picked up that book voluntarily — and found it unexpectedly compelling (possibly another reason I loved Llosa’s novel). I also recall the death scene at the end as one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever experienced in fiction — which impressed upon me all over again how crucial it is to ground your reader in well-chosen, realistic observation and deep, full-blooded characters, even if your objective is ‘just’ to scare or thrill people. (Of course my main education in that is from Stephen King, who writes from a tradition of American realism just as much, if not more so, than ‘horror’, and which is, I believe, a big reason why so many of his imitators fail to even understand how he achieves the story-impact that he does, much less replicate it in any way themselves. But I digress.)
And speaking of femme fatales: Had a very fun lunch with friends Ryan and Joanna and their friends and friends of friends — Gloria Feldt and two under-the-radar actresses named Sharon and Kathleen. Kathleen had just discovered that her memoir debuted on the New York Times bestseller list — her publishers, she said, were “shocked”. I’m not entirely sure if she was just being self-deprecating or if the forces of publishing could honestly be so thick-headed as to think that an actress “of a certain age”, even of Kathleen’s stature, wouldn’t have such an eager audience all the more hungry for falling so far outside the main demographic that Hollywood is always catering to (possibly because so many of its executives fall within, or at least very near, that demographic themselves).
She is a larger-than-life personality, with that deep whiskey voice; I could have slumped back in the banquette and listened to her for hours. I spoke up long enough to confess that after I saw the movie BODY HEAT, “I swear I walked around for days piling my hair on my head whenever I was conversing with men and then shaking it out like this –” And I demonstrated. I didn’t have to explain that I was referencing a scene where bad girl Kathleen, all in white, is talking to (and seducing) a mesmerized William Hurt. The table broke into good-natured laughter and I think Kathleen actually blushed.