These days, it can be hard to believe in corporate publishing.The proliferation of pink-covered chick-lit beach reads, of C-list celebrity memoirs, of “literary fiction” seeming to have morphed into “morally inspirational books that appeal to middle-aged-lady book clubs”—well, it’s enough to all but make a girl give up on the galleys she receives from the Big Boys of New York publishing.I mean, sure, the occasional intimidatingly-smart, ultra-hip book by a twenty-or-thirtysomething white boy with shaggy hair still slips in among the drivel now and again to give us all a thrill; sure every year or so one or two foreign-born writers get championed as that season’s exotic thrill . . . but these moments can seem not only fewer and further between, but somewhat repetitive in and of themselves.Is there, for god’s sake, anything new and daring happening at the big conglomerates these days?
Enter Bad Marie, the new novel by Marcy Dermansky (Twins), put out by Harper Perennial—a paperback HarperCollins imprint that is, I dare say, becoming notable for its willingness to break the mold of current publishing expectations.It is hard to even begin to define what makes Bad Marie “different” from other books on the market right now, except to say that it is as different as the French films of the 1980s were from When Harry Met Sally or Rambo. In fact, it might be fair to say that Bad Marie is the Betty Blue of novels: not just genuinely sexy, dark and subversive but also freaking weirdly hilarious, and if there is any logic in this world it will become both a bestseller and a cult classic.
For starters, the title character in Bad Marie is actually bad!That right there differentiates Dermansy’s narrative from what we might usually expect, where “poor Marie” would be misjudged and maligned by evil-doers who do not “understand” her (her intelligence!her sensitivity!her wacky humor! her lack of “conventional” beauty!), before she would finally . . . hmm?Lose weight, find love and emerge victorious?Not in this story, honey.I mean, to clarify, Marie is not “evil.”She is not a sociopath, and there is therefore nothing slick or glib about her life or her characterization.This is not subversive ala American Psycho . . . it is something both more subtle and perhaps riskier in that Dermansky dares us to care about Marie, to root for her, to take on her world view even as it is selfish and misguided, possibly delusional, and absolutely dangerous not only to herself but to others, notably two-year-old Caitlin, the child Marie nannies and abducts, first with the help of Caitlin’s father and later on her renegade, broke-ass own.
At thirty, Marie is already an ex-con and a self-pitying drunk who feels the world owes her recompense—especially her employer and childhood friend, Ellen, whose husband, clothing, money, and child she covets.At times—especially early on—Dermansky’s narrative “explains” Marie a bit more than it needs to (i.e., “The situation would have been humiliating had Marie any ambition in life.Fortunately, Marie was not in any way ambitious”), as if it does not fully trust us to understand Marie’s twistedly entitled point of view or her willful determination to live a life without worry.But like the best of fictional characters, the reader soon senses Marie beginning to “write herself.”The curtain of Dermansky’s analysis falls away so completely that we are inside Marie’s skin and head, experiencing her wildly oscillating emotions and desires in a decadent feast of the senses.For unlike so many characters in contemporary fiction, Marie lives deeply inside her body, and almost not-at-all inside her mind, from which she is on the run as surely as she is from Ellen or the law.The novel’s descriptions of French food—and Marie’s quintessentially American delight in finding herself eating it!—are simultaneously rapturous, tantalizing and comical.Her appreciation of booze is lusty, her appetite for sex primal.She delights in the magnificence of her own large breasts and eats voraciously whenever given the opportunity.It is, in short, impossible not to enjoy Marie, in an almost gape-mouthed way, against all our better judgments, even though we know she would gladly fuck our spouses, wear our kimonos and abscond with our children–and even though she is clearly headed for ruin.
Plus, here is the thing: she is just so damn funny.The novel abounds with wry one-liners that are all about context; that lose their extreme humor in the retelling (but here is one anyway: “He needed to control his French actress.”)Other times, entire scenes are so preposterous that I found myself laughing aloud (such as when Marie’s French lover begins copulating with said French actress right in front of her.)Dermansky’s wit is particularly sharp about all things French, and when the novel veers away from Paris, taking Marie to the quieter south of France and ultimately to Mexico, the more absurdist humor begins to fade, leaving something darker, more aching in its wake.Slowly, without our even being fully aware it is happening, Bad Marie becomes a sadder, heavier read, even as the pages continue to turn themselves.The reader is left—as the story reaches its inevitable conclusion—with a horrible lump in the throat and an encroaching sense of dread.For Marie has from the first loved little Caitlin, but it is when her love transforms from something wholly unrealistic and self-serving into something complex and real that Marie may be at her most dangerous, her entire world view threatened and her powers of self-deception so acute that we cannot be sure she is telling herself—and therefore us—the truth about her intentions.As we leave her on the brink of a final act of loving hedonism before she makes her transformation to maturity (or even “goodness”), we cannot help but wonder if that transformation will come, or if Marie will find a way to sabotage her best intentions permanently.
As such, this novel manages to end on a note of ambiguity that is all but verboten these days in big publishing.After following Marie on her illicit and turbulent joy ride, we are left with a myriad of conflicting emotions at this brief novel’s end: hope, dread, sadness, loss, triumph.Where the reader believes Marie (and Caitlin) will end up from here has a great deal to do with that reader’s own state of mind and worldview—in other words, holy shit, the reader subjectively decides.Not only is Marie a central character who resists easy classifications like “heroine” or “villainess,” but the novel itself defies easy black and white dichotomies such as having a “happy ending” or being a “tragedy.”As Bad Marie—among its many other provocative attributes—includes a number of musings on the transformational nature of literature, the authority of authorship, and the picaresque tradition of coincidence (for Bad Marie is, on many levels, a picaresque novel–a fact that the humorless Publishers Weekly review, griping about all its implausible coincidences, fails to grasp), so does Dermansky in the end make it clear that literature’s power to transform lies wholly with the reader and that—like Marie herself—we can choose redemption, narcissism or despair.
Which in this reader’s mind is redemption enough. So for the sake of everything both wrong and right in publishing right now, buy and read Bad Marie.Make it a bestseller and tell New York we want “more like this.”Unless you are prissy, possess no sense of humor, and do not enjoy the time-honored American pastime of alternately worshiping and mocking the French, you are going to love it in all the worst, best, most disturbing ways true book lovers still want literature to provide.
Other “HP” titles bucking the trend:
HarperCollins imprints Harper Perennial and Harper Paperbacks have gotten my attention lately.To see what I mean, check out Greg Olear’s early 90’s romp—part satire, part love story, part crime thriller—Totally Killer; Emily Gray Tedrowe’s multi-generational novel of manners and money (oh, and also octogenarian sex and drug addiction), Commuters; Robin Antalek’s edgy and episodic tale of a fractured family, The Summer We Fell Apart; the narratively fragmented, darkly beautiful mother-daughter drama Up from the Blue by Susan Henderson; and the intense, sexy epistolary collection What He’s Poised to Do by Ben Greenman.Be careful, HarperCollins: if your paperback imprints keep up the good work, we may just consider forgiving you for your one-time-hard-on for Judith Regan.