(continued from part one)
Miriam: I tried to read CFB without being influenced by the context of the back story, but I agree Moore was out to do more than just shock. To me, it read a bit like a novel written out of anger and the desire to indict adults. I can’t say I sympathized with Courtney or Janet (or the voice of the narrator). While Moore did a great job depicting why the girls behaved the way they did and how lonely they were, their blatant disregard for their own well-being made it difficult for me to care for them, probably because they didn’t care much for themselves. Courtney seemed like a narcissistic, depressed, and angry young woman. Both she and Janet were calculated manipulators, as evident here: “It had worked, by God; she knew it would…she sensed she would win this man’s interest, and that was all she wanted. She would never forget that first day, when she found that it worked.”
There has been much debate about authors who create unlikable protagonists. Claire Messud spoke at length about that scenario, and the bottom line is, characters don’t have to win a popularity contest to make a stellar novel. In fact, I’d argue that authors who can write a spectacular book without sympathetic characters possess a special talent. Pamela Moore had it.
Did you like the characters, James? I’m going out on a limb here by admitting my favorite character was Courtney’s last boyfriend, Charles. Even if he was condescending and self-righteous, he had a good head on his shoulders and was the only person who seemed interested in what would be good for Courtney (maybe Miss Rosen did too, because by cutting Courtney off she saved her further scandal and heartbreak. Or maybe Miss Rosen was just looking out for herself). Courtney’s other love interests, Barry, the bisexual actor, and Anthony, the spoiled rich kid, were both selfish and immature and never had Courtney’s best interests at heart. Although I will give Anthony credit for letting her go in the end.
Who was your favorite character? I’m curious if you’re going to pick one of the women since I picked one of the men. I’m wondering if it’s easier for us to sympathize with the opposite gender because we can’t identify as closely with the characters…
James: It didn’t occur to me to like any of the characters, I don’t think. They’re all flawed, most of them badly, with the possible exception of Miss Rosen, but as you point out, we don’t really get to know enough about her to determine whether she’s nice or just tries to seem that way. Charles has his charms, but he came off as unpleasantly arrogant to me. Anthony is an interesting case; I’m not even sure Moore wants us to see him as a real person. He appeared to be a refugee from another kind of book entirely, a figure out of Byron or Wilde. Given all that, I’d have to say that Courtney was my favorite. Depressed, angry, and acting out, sure, but I blame her situation more than her self.
Speaking of depression, I thought Moore was amazingly prescient in the way she handled the topic. Her descriptions of Courtney’s cutting and her mood swings (that we would now call manifestations of bipolar disorder) seemed almost anachronistic, they were so good. Those issues are treated frequently in fiction these days, even in teen and tween novels, but back in the ’50s they weren’t.
For me, a lot of the value of CFB comes from its being a document of its times, but for Moore’s sake I wish she’d grown up a few decades later. As a college-aged kid of today she’d probably have better access to psychological support and see more avenues of expression open to her. Of course, she probably wouldn’t be compelled to create the protagonist and write the book she did. The emblematic novel of jaded youth from my era was Bret Easton Ellis’ vapid Rules of Attraction, and things have gone downhill from there. Look at Snooki.
Miriam: I’ll take Pamela Moore over Snooki any day (just from the photo in this column, compared to any of Snooki’s photos). I agree about Moore’s portrayal of depression, because let’s face it, part of the reason these characters are compelling is because they’re all somewhat depressed. I felt it most at the beginning, when Courtney slept all the time; what a subtle but familiar behavior. Her method for pulling herself out of the excessive sleeping was to lose her virginity and engage in an entirely inappropriate affair, which was also painful and telling. I suppose I can see why you like her, because underneath all her posturing she’s definitely a little girl lost. I agree also with your take on Anthony, who was definitely like a Dorian Gray or even Gatsby-type character.
Warning, readers: big spoiler coming so stop now if you want to be surprised.
James, let’s talk about Janet’s suicide. Did you see it coming? Moore clearly sets it up to be the parents’ fault, whether it’s Sondra’s choice to kick Janet out or Janet’s father’s for nearly choking her. Obviously something bad was looming near the end, but I was waiting for a scene where Janet confronts Courtney about her affair with Anthony and it never came.
Ultimately, it’s a rebel without a cause story, one that I enjoyed. Good pick as usual, my esteemed colleague. Keep ‘em coming.
James: I didn’t see Janet’s death coming, but only because the story seemed to be setting Courtney up for a fall. Not necessarily literally, mind you. I felt the tragedy of the existing ending, and I guess it makes sense that Janet, who was a bit less sharp than Courtney with a home life a bit more screwed up, would succumb to her demons first. Still, it seemed almost a cop-out for the author to deflect the oncoming train away from her heroine. It didn’t ruin the book, but it did make me think that Moore wasn’t quite as rebellious as she set out to be. Hard to say whether it was her own muse or the publishing environment of the time that required her to leave open the possibility of redemption. Writing a truly black ending wasn’t then and isn’t now a great career move. I know she went on to produce a few other novels that weren’t nearly as popular; maybe she became less reticent and those were even darker.
I hadn’t planned to go on a 1950s jag, but right after I finished CFB I turned to a short book called In Love by Alfred Hayes, which came out three years before Moore’s debut and was just reprinted by New York Review Books. It’s another story of doomed romance, but it made for an interesting contrast. It’s less energetic than CFB, and more frank about how mid-century men and women wooed each other without trying to be salacious about it. The characters aren’t entering a world that has no place for them, they’ve found their place and lived in it so long that it’s grown shabby. Worth a look for anyone who’s in the mood for some aged whiskey to chase CFB’s bathtub gin.
You may rightly be afraid of a hangover, Miriam, and need some time away from boozy books, but we should definitely do something like this again. It’s always a pleasure to read along with a colleague possessing such exquisite taste. I mean you too, blog followers!