March 15th, 2011

Rose-coloured reviews *The Anxiety of Everyday Objects* by Aurelie Sheehan

I read Aurelie Sheehan’s novel The Anxiety of Everyday Objects in just over a day, very rare for me. I had (and still have) a miserable cold, and wasn’t capable of concentrating on complicated material for very long, so this little book suited me just fine, and I read it compulsively as a distraction from my snot-drenched woe.

Even in this weakened state, I still didn’t think it was very good. But it was a little good. I really enjoyed the warm, gentle treatment of the day-to-day life of an office, and especially the workdays of the protagonist (let’s face it, heroine), Winona. She’s a secretary in a law firm, taking dictation and typing letters, organizing folders and answering the phone when the receptionist’s away. She doesn’t love it, but she finds it comforting and Zen-like to do the job well. At one point she describes it as like picking bits of grass out of a bucket of bolts, which I didn’t quite get, but the rest of Winona’s observations and emotions about her work are spot-on–I know exactly what she means, and in certain ways, I have never heard it expressed so well. Moreover, Sheehan sets most of the novel in this office, and lingers on the setting not as something to parody or scorn, but as lived experience. There is a lovely moment where Winona, carrying two cups of coffee to her boss’s office, finds the door closed and has to set both on the floor, knock, wait to be beckoned in, open the door, then pick up the cups and bring them inside to be served. Not a huge deal, but perfectly done, and quietly funny.

Unfortunately, though Winona is good at her job and wise in her assessment of it, in many other ways she is…a moron. Actually, she’s only a moron to serve the machinations of the plot–most of the truly stupid things Winona does seem out-of-character, but she does so many of them that it becomes difficult to keep track of what her character *is* exactly. Sheehan manufactures strange explanations for bits of a normal woman’s life that she can’t be bothered to write. Friends? Winona doesn’t have any, she announces with equanimity at one point. Family? She doesn’t speak to her parents because they live in Florida and are boring. She has a sister, who begs her to dogsit at several points in the novel, and is pretty funny–but basically a one-note joke. Education? Apparently Winona has an MFA in film from some unnamed NYC institution, but she never references anything she learned or did there. Her plans for putting her education to use involve imagining neat-o scenes in her head, and wandering around the city with a video camera.

Romantic history? This is the worst one. At one point, the 3rd person narrator actually proposes to explain Winona’s romantic history, but then begs off with “She had loved.” This seems unlikely; more likely, though Winona denies that she was “born yesterday” at one point, is exactly that. She seems to have no idea what happens in relationships, and to not even desire one so much as be curious about the concept. When an attractive guy at work takes her to dinner, she opens the meal with “Is it because you want to have sex?” And then, bafflingly, he doesn’t answer and thing proceed as if it hadn’t been said. As to whether she is actually *attracted* to this attractive guy, or anyone–who cares? Winona goes where she’s pushed by contrivances of plot. When a manically sexual ex comes into town (that they ever actually dated never seems probable, but whatever), he proposes they have a little no-strings-attached bondage and domination session. Winona, having never done that before and no further plans that evening, says sure. That goes about as well as you might expect.

Actually, it goes a little better than you might expect–he does indeed have nefarious intentions, but they are decidedly PG…because we’ve got to get back to the main plotline, I guess. The main plotline is about…well, it’s not even revealed what is really going on until the final quarter of the book, so for most of the time it is about a strange girl-crush Winona develops on a new lawyer at the firm, Sandy. Sandy is blond, well-dressed, stunning and blind, and seemingly auditioning for a role on Ally McBeal. She’s so gorgeous, so great at her job despite her lack of sight, and she even finds time to encourage Winona to be the best that she can be. She notes a few times that Winona is good at her job, then promotes her to office manager, demoting the woman currently in that position. The after-effects of that shuffle on office relations does feel realistic, but Winona’s cheerful acceptance of Sandy and everything she offers her–a day at the spa, a diamond watch, unorthodox and secretive work instructions feels just this side of absurd. Winona’s almost 30, but she doesn’t think there’s anything odd about photocopying she can’t tell her boss about?

Sigh. Then, obsessed with Sandy’s cryptic messages alternated with warm intimacy, Winona starts following her around town and filming her. Deranged behaviour for most of us, but Winona’s a filmmaker, so it’s ok. Now we see why Sheehan made Winona a filmmaker, instead of a poet or painter, despite a complete lack of film-references or vocabulary in the novel: the setup of for the big denouement requires a random moment caught on film! So, Winona is neither auteur nor psycho stalker; she’s just a plot element.

So then the big shakedown occurs (as on Scooby-Doo, the main villain turns out to be a character the reader doesn’t know, so we never had any hope of understanding what was going on–at least, I didn’t–until the author tells us). There are elements about the ending that are quiet and kind of interesting: the bad guys don’t get punished, and the good guys all wind up unemployed. They were at least able to quit their jobs valourously, but still, the book ends with a kiss and the implied promise that Winona will now make her movie. In a really good book, I feel like I turn the last page and the characters keep going; here, I felt sure that Winona neither made a movie nor did anything else. She just went back to sleep in the imagination of her author.

This is my fifth book on the To Be Read challenge. So far a literary novel, a collection of literary short stories, a YA novel, a long poem, and now (let’s face it) chick-lit. At least I get around!

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