Girlchild, by the improbably-named Tupelo Hassman, is in spite of itself fast becoming my favorite recent novel. I know, how very middlebrow of me. Actually, the technical title is Girlchild: A Novel, but one of the few things I hate more than genocide is when a book feels the need to condescendingly point out that it’s A Novel, as opposed to garden hose or a life insurance policy or a cabbage or something, so I will just ignore that. Today, I will explicate three reasons you should read this book (or four, if “Miranda really liked it” counts as a reason). As a brief summary, Girlchild is the story not only of Rory Hendrix, who grows up in a trailer park community in Reno, Nevada in the 1970s and 1980s, but of the women in her family. It is fundamentally a character study.
1) Girlchild doesn’t shy away from class issues. In America, in literature, we seem to only acknowledge poverty if it’s within the context of someone’s ascent out of it, and yeah, I’m sure there are exceptions that commenters can helpfully list, but Girlchild depicts the underclass in a sensitive, nuanced way that resists simplification or fetishization. A significant part of the novel shows Rory’s early awareness of the divide between her neighborhood and the rest of the world. The life depicted in the Calle (the trailer park where Rory and her mother live) is the reality for the majority of Americans, and this voice is needed in a society that is irrevocably divided between the tiny group of haves and the masses of have-nots. While this depiction is imperfect, delivered as it is through a medium of privilege and made possible by more privilege, I think it’s the kind of story we need more of in order to work for a more empathetic society. Oh, sorry, my Marxist is showing. tl;dr! Let’s go on to –
2) Girlchild utilizes pastiche in one of the most effective ways I’ve seen so far, and this makes for one of the most memorable narrative voices I’ve encountered in recent fiction. One major trope in the novel is Rory’s desire to be a Girl Scout, and this is used to emphasize the tasks and trials she undergoes (as well as to highlight the absurdity of the traditional Girl Scouting program in the face of poverty and semi-neglect). Girlchild incorporates a rich variety of voices and texts, yet the story is Rory’s own, and everything is filtered through her perspective. Too often, pastiche tropes just work like collages or overstuffed casseroles, throwing in a bit of everything until it’s nothing, but Girlchild manages to incorporate a wide variety of styles while still integrating them into one coherent and cohesive voice.
3) Girlchild resists easy answers and simple narratives. I know, what a cop-out, right? That’s the ultimate easy answer in a book review. but hear me out. In some heteroglossic move, Girlchild isn’t just Rory’s story, nor even that of her mother and grandmother. The book has been criticized for a slow-moving plot, when I don’t think that’s as important as the development of the voice and the depiction of a place and time. It isn’t just about Rory’s in/ability to get out of the Calle and follow what the audience would have her do (college! scholarships! rewarding career!). It isn’t just a coming-of-age story. Like other works I greatly admire that incorporate other narratives and voices into a deeper whole, Girlchild is actually the story of many different people, which sets the title at odds with its content. Many of the more critical reviews on Amazon and Goodreads seem to come from those who expected an easy, “Oprah-style” narrative of someone overcoming their past. Instead, Girlchild is terribly human – not novelistic – and while some may hate it for that, I respect it even more. That being said, the book is not without flaws. For example, early in the book, I think that Hassman resorted to what I could cynically call a cliche in coming-of-age / adolescent novels, but what I respect is that the book is not about discovering that this event occurred and rendering justice (cf. the far-overrated Perks of Being a Wallflower) but instead, its repercussions and incorporation into the larger context of a life.
It’s hard to find any actual information about Hassman, other than the fact that she lives in Oakland, CA (a fact that the Amazon biography mentions no fewer than three times) and has an MFA from Columbia (mentioned twice in the aforementioned Amazon blurb). While the “MFA-ification” of American fiction has been criticized, and rightfully so, I am excited to see what Hassman writes next. In the meantime, I command you to read this book.
(For a full list of everything I read this year or at least until I forget to update, this is my Goodreads 2013 challenge.)