Top critical review
Too Contrived and Self-Conscious
on 16 May 2017
Zoe Pilger (daughter of war correspondent, film maker and radical journalist John Pilger and feminist-socialist journalist and sometime novelist Yvonne Roberts) takes on the angst of the millenials in her debut novel. Her heroine Anne-Marie is a recent non-graduate from Cambridge University (she failed her final exams) who has lost her upper-class boyfriend Sebastian, who was her entree into the world of the moneyed (Anne Marie herself, we gather, comes from a humbler comprehensive-school educated background) and is spending her days in a boring job working in a sleazy restaurant, and her nights either at home in a grungy Clapham flat belonging to wealthy young artist Freddie and his Disney-obsessed boyfriend Samuel, or out on the prowl seeking sex and love. During the course of the book, she has three affairs - with an ex-army man called Vic who proves to be a creepy stalker, an elderly gentleman named James who wants her to dress up in an antique wedding dress and talk about chartreuse cats, and a Sebastian-look-alike and lighting manager called Dave - and a lot of arguments with Freddie, with Sebastian and with Sebastian's new wealthy girlfriend Allegra (who in revenge smears excrement over Anne-Marie's walls). She also becomes obsessed with a famous feminist called Stephanie Haight who determines to give her a purpose in life and rescue her from her aimless subjection to love and sex - but who proves to be somewhat unstable herself, and may only make things worse for her....
To Pilger's credit, she has a strong, sometimes elegant writing style, and writes very well about London - and she also has some sharp observations of the millennial generation, particularly the sense of aimlessness that can dominate in some circles. As an art journalist, she's also rather good at satirical observations of the contemporary art world, including pretentious installations and 'art happenings'. However, this book badly suffers from its inconsistent characters and its rambling plot and lack of structure. Nothing really happens other than a lot of parties, sex and rows - and there's only so many drunken encounters, over-the-top mildly crazy arguments, sexual exploitation and descriptions of the super-rich enjoying themselves that one can take. A large proportion of the book feels completely unbelievable, particularly the castration scene towards the end, and it was unclear whether part of what Anne-Marie described as happening was only taking place in her fevered imagination. All of the characters veer towards caricature, and some are completely unbelievable. Stephanie is the chief culprit here, switching between a fairly normal and kind if conceited intellectual whose reasons for wanting to help Anne-Marie (giving her a sense of purpose and making her realize that there's more to life than men) seem wise and sound, to an unstable eccentric doing bizarre, pointless acts (making Anne-Marie lick a toilet she'd cleaned and take part in a sex show, for example). By the end of the book appeared to be a violent lunatic. I couldn't believe anyone quite that unstable could have become a big feminist success. The other characters - apart from perhaps Sebastian, who did seem to have some good qualities - were all incredibly unpleasant and shallow. And though the book was repeatedly described in the reviews as funny, other than the odd tart one-liner I couldn't find the humour at all - particularly with all the fantasies about animal cruelty and murder that went on.
What for me was the weakest element of the book was the sheer dislikability of Anne-Marie. I think Zoe Pilger intends us to see her as a brave, insightful but rather messed up girl - but to me she merely seemed pathetic, and actually (despite all her quotes from Nietzsche etc) not all that bright. Most of her misfortunes are down to her own silliness and selfishness. She is a bright girl, and could have passed her Cambridge exams if she'd made the effort, and not spent all her time 'drunk or high' as she puts it. If she was seriously depressed in her final year, she could have asked the University health service, or her mother, for help. The break-up with Sebastian, we learn, is in fact largely her fault as she was unfaithful (for no other reason than to prove she could be). She makes no effort either to do exam retakes, or to find somewhere else to complete her degree - or to find a better job than her appalling one in the restaurant, or to do something other than tagging round after Stephanie or Sebastian's family. Her obsession with getting men - any man, anywhere - to sleep with her isn't impressive, it is just pathetic and needy, while her stealing from Stephanie while at other times cravenly obeying her every word just seems childish. Moreover, she's amazingly self-centered - I think virtually every one of her musings in the book is about herself. This makes her a tedious companion; people with no real interest in anything other than their own ego are not good company. Maybe if we'd learnt more about her past it would have been easier to understand her, but Pilger's not great on back story, and we only get snippets of occasional information. This is frustrating - I'd have particularly liked to learn more about Anne Marie's relationship with her mother, who simply seemed to turn up every now and again and vanish, with no real connection to her daughter at all. (Pilger's also a bit sloppy about back story at times - Anne Marie appears in one chapter to have read Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge, and in another to have read Philosophy.)
One would expect that the daughter of socially-conscious writers such as John Pilger and Yvonne Roberts might end the book with Anne-Marie discovering a social conscience, and becoming politically involved, or getting a job in social work, teaching or as a radical journalist - or at least realizing that the moneyed, self-indulgent world that she is struggling to stay part of is not worth it and there are better things to do. But the most depressing element of all in the book is that Anne-Marie appears to learn precisely nothing. Nothing is resolved, and after an act of shocking and gratuitous violence (not committed by her) on a return trip to Cambridge Anne-Marie merely drifts on back to Clapham, feeling miserable. And one imagines that she will simply carry on as she did at the start of the book, with an aimless job and aimless relationships. The ultimate message in this sometimes well-written but wholly pessimistic book seems to be that young twenty-somethings have lost all motivation and hope for a better life, and all altruism. Which makes it a deeply depressing read.