January 30, 2012
The central characters in Elissa Schappell’s Blueprints for Building Better Girls go through their lives, like most of us, accompanied by an inner narrator. The inner narrator for Schappell’s characters is more antagonist than friend: it’s the voice of fairy tales, of high school hallway gossip, of what their mother told them was permissible for girls (“Men and horses sweat, ladies perspire”). These women and girls know the roles available to them. They know the postures to adopt, the lines to speak; they know what’s expected of a Southern debutante, or a girl with a bad reputation, or a woman who’s just had a miscarriage.
But in each story, the protagonist confronts something that cannot be explained or understood with the narrative she’s been using thus far. Much of the pathos and humor here derives from the characters’ attempts to hold onto old “blueprints” that are now inadequate. In the pathos column, we have Charlotte, the Southern heroine of “Are You Comfortable?” who is date-raped at a college party. The reader can see what’s coming as the boy she’s just met leads her up the stairs, but Charlotte is too busy narrating the story to herself to sense danger:
He asked me if I wanted to wait for him downstairs, or come up and see his room. A gentleman never leaves a lady unattended without permission. I thought, Why not? When he took my hand and we walked together upstairs, I thought, First holding hands. Next would be, First walk home. Then, First look at the moon…
The dark underside of such fairy-tale narratives, of course, is what they do to the girls who take a wrong turn: the good girl’s goodness is made possible by the existence of a slut, a bad girl. After her rape we see Charlotte trying on this new story about herself: “…Charlotte was too exhausted to move. She was a bad person.” This echoes the narrator of the collection’s first story, “Monsters,” who speaks of her bad reputation with such bravado that it is not until the story’s close that she allows herself to admit that this reputation is a fiction. This is the territory Schappell covers best: the uneasy negotiations girls and women make with the blueprints they’ve been given. “We’re such bad girls,” says one character as two young mothers drink wine at the playground. “A lady drinking in public,” the other says. “It’s a scandal.”
The stories’ humor, too, is often prompted by the characters’ struggles to force ill-fitting narrative frames onto incongruous circumstances. Charlotte’s mother in “Are You Comfortable?” is the best example of this. “You’ve always been a good student,” she says when Charlotte abruptly leaves school after her rape. “You’re very conscientious… you’re a nice girl.” Later, when her aging father drinks paint thinner, Charlotte’s mother insists to a social worker: “You know men […] He hadn’t drunk but a tiny bit. A taste.”
Though the collection is concerned with blueprints, the stories themselves are wonderfully unexpected. The narrator of “Out of the Blue and Into the Black” is a hard-partying college student, nicknamed Bender, who lives by the motto I’ll do anything for ten minutes. Bender repeats this to herself at key moments, similar to the way Charlotte in “Are You Comfortable?” chants etiquette-book advice to herself (“A lady never… attracts undue attention to herself”) while dealing with a situation for which she’s unprepared. Bender’s story is also periodically interrupted by short jokes, the kind of 1-2-3 set-ups told at bars – the kind of joke that, like some stories, insists on a certain sort of ending, one within the spectrum of allowable feelings. Bender’s behavior, like that of many of the girls in Blueprints, is guided by her own self-mythologizing: when asked if she wants a drink, she reasons, “How would it look if Bender said no?” By the end of the story, though, Bender’s old narrative is hanging on by the thinnest of threads, ready to give way at any moment. And there is a movement, exhilarating to read, in which she takes a small step towards telling a different kind of story. As the protagonist in the final story says, “… there is no such thing as just a girl.” That’s what this collection offers – the possibility that we might be the agents of stories larger, more complex, and more interesting than those we’ve been telling ourselves.