Monday, November 05, 2012

Reading group: Looking for Mr Goodbar by Judith Rossner

In the last couple of months my time has been completely taken up by intensive writing and some pretty radical decorating (involving stripping paint and replastering!), so I haven't been keeping up our book group reports, I'm afraid. It's now about seven weeks since our September meeting (and I've had those massive preoccupations to push it out of my mind), so my following report might be a bit sketchy, but here goes.

Clare chose this book, set in the early 1970s and based on a real-life 1973 murder case, about a convent-educated primary-school teacher in her late twenties, Theresa Dunn, who haunts the singles bars of New York picking up men for brief sexual encounters, and is finally murdered by one of these men, a psychopath.

The book was published in 1975 to ecstatic reviews, and generally accepted as being of 'considerable literary merit' (New York Times). None of us present, however, felt that the book was well written, and as far as I recollect a fair bit of the discussion concerned this discrepancy. Clearly, at the time of publication, the subject matter - a woman cruising bars for casual sex, in particular a woman from a respectable Catholic family with a highly respectable job and, later on, a respectable lawyer fiance - and the explicit way in which the sex was portrayed - were explosive, and it is interesting to see how response to subject-matter can affect one's perception of prose style.

Most of us, reading the book in the present day, felt that it was very difficult to understand on an emotional level why Theresa engages in this double life of self-destructive behaviour. Least perturbed by this was Clare who is a counsellor and who, introducing the book, said she could identify certain psychological theories about emotional damage and promiscuity being consciously worked through in the book. In fact, the book makes plain, on a factual level, the causes of Theresa's behaviour: struck down at the age of four by polio which resulted in a slight curvature of the spine that she works hard to disguise, suffering a repressed sense of parental neglect (the death of her elder brother after her illness prevented her parents noticing her incipient disability and getting it treated), feeling inferior to a glamorous elder sister, and used and hurt by her first callous and predatory lover, her college lecturer, she suffers from low self-worth and, as a kind of warped self-protection, dissociates sex from emotion: brief sex with strangers is exciting, or at least briefly satisfying - the more threatening or detached the more exciting/satisfying - but sex with her sincere and loving fiance is anaesthetic. However, we were generally agreed that none of this was convincing on an emotional level: it was hard to feel Theresa's psychological development (if it can be called that) and changes of gear; the book, as Doug said, just didn't feel lived or felt. 

Ann said she had read that Rossner had been commissioned to write the book in the aftermath of the real-life case, and wondered if this had made for a lack of true emotional engagement on the part of the author. Mark and Ann both felt too that Rossner's age at the time - I think they had read she was about forty - set her apart from the newly sexually 'liberated' scene she was describing: she had indeed not lived it and was portraying it from the outside. Those in the group who had been young at the time felt that she hadn't in fact got it right: while everyone present could agree that promiscuity can be a kind of masochism, there was nothing in the book of the atmosphere of the time whereby women who did behave this way revelled in it, telling themselves (however mistakenly) that they were exercising a newly found sexual power.

Whatever the reason, we felt that, in spite of the critical praise, it is the prose that fails to convey the crucial emotional element. In spite of an innovative beginning - a police report on the murderer followed by the murderer's confession - the book very quickly becomes a conventional third-person linear plod through the events of Theresa's life, with much ground to cover and a consequent tendency to tell rather than show. This leads inevitably to a lack of vividness, leading in turn to a loss of significance. For instance, I said, when I realised that Theresa in adulthood was jealous of her elder sister Katherine I was surprised: I had missed that; and once again, I was really surprised to learn that Theresa had been very fond of Katherine's husband Brooks. Therefore I found it unconvincing that Theresa should be so upset when Katherine leaves him, and in turn even more unconvincing (even baffling) that when Theresa goes to Brooks' flat to comfort him and finds him with a young woman, she is so upset she hotfoots it down to one of the bars to pick up a man. There were general murmurs of agreement among the book group. The need to cram in a lot of backstory in a somewhat doggedly linear tale leads to clumsy (and over-proliferated) sentences such as this: It turned out that the way Katherine had broken her engagement to Young John was by running away with and marrying a cousin of Young John's whom she met at a wedding she'd gone to with Young John, and to clumsy structure and an over-reliance on exposition. After Theresa finds the supposedly grieving Brooks with the young woman, and before she seeks refuge in a bar pickup, she feels she really needs to talk to someone and thinks of another teacher at her school whom she wishes she could call (if she knew her better and if weren't too late in the evening).  This teacher has not  been mentioned previously in the novel, and slap-bang in the middle of Theresa's supposed emotional crisis we are given an account of this teacher from scratch - Her name was Rose and she was middle-aged and Jewish - what she looks like, her home circumstances and her personality, and the narrative tension is dispelled. This links with a general complaint in the group that very little attention is given to the schoolteaching side of Theresa's life - a result being that the supposedly shocking contrast between the two aspects of her life becomes merely academic for the reader. Although in theory everyone in the group accepted the notion of a secret life - as Mark said, it's one of the basic subjects of novels - most of us found it unconvincing when we were told in this novel that Theresa handles the children so well and is such a caring teacher - it merely seems inconsistent with the pathetic lack of emotional control in the other side of her life. Similarly, Ann noted, although we are told about Theresa's Irish-Catholic background, there is none of the particular emotional flavour of that (and so we miss out on any visceral sense of its emotional impact). A specialist in textiles, Ann said also that the bottom fell out of the novel for her at the point when we are briefly told that Theresa makes herself some new curtains even though she has never sewn anything before in her life - a small but vital indication of the lack of felt experience in the book. None of us could remember all the different men Teresa had taken back to her flat, or the order of her doing so; the linearity and account-type style of writing had created a repetitiveness that made them blur into each other and failed to turn them into much of a narrative arc. This was a failure compounded by the randomness of the ending. Although Theresa's repressed prudery combined with her fear of closeness are what tip her murderer over the edge, the fact that she picks up a psychopath in the first place has an inherent randomness rather than any inevitability. All in all, for most of us present, what should have been an exciting story was a tedious read.

So, basically, the book got a thumbs-down from us, although it turned out later that Trevor and Jenny, who had both missed the meeting, had very much enjoyed it. Trevor agreed that it wasn't too well written, and also that the sexual ethos of the 70s hadn't really been the way it's portrayed in the book, but he hadn't found that that mattered and had really liked it as a cracking and 'juicy' read.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here


lessonlearning said...

I liked the book and thought it was quite psychologically sophisticated. A woman enjoying sex, good to see ( many people do, or want to), but also sadly only having that for love she so desperately needs ( dont we all) and for personal, societal, other people's inadequacies and limitations still seeks in vain until her end. The end, based on a true story, spoils but captures the tragedy, perhaps it was to be perpetual , of the tale, but is unavoidable as it stimulated the speculative profound story in the first place. I recommend it!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thank you for your comments, Lessonlearning. Good to have a different persepctive!