Something To Cling To

Zoe Pilger, Eat My Heart Out

Serpent's Tail, 304pp, £11.99, ISBN 9781781251348

reviewed by Jessie Burton

You almost worry, reviewing a book like Zoe Pilger’s Eat My Heart Out, that you are going to sound precisely like the critic-wankers satirised within its pages – a confident, ignorant consumer of creative endeavour who would pay £500 for some ‘limited edition dead bees’ collected in a jar, or who’d call a cocktail glass in an art instalment ‘a visual madeleine.’ These people, Pilger suggests, wouldn’t know a good painting or a duff philosophy if it came and hit them round the face. But at least they’re willing to take a look.

The ‘open-mindedness’ of critics might be nothing more than easy contagion, yet at the same time their accepting behaviour highlights the opposite – closed and squirmy bourgeois attitudes, our own hypocritical sensibilities. Pilger pinions the privileged hipster and provokes classist loathings – but more interestingly she also calls up a secret, sentimental craving for someone, somewhere, to just be nice, maybe even a little ordered. But the qualities of niceness and order, her book suggests, are really no longer enough.

For all that, Eat My Heart Out holds no overt judgments, no dogma and no resolution. Anarchic and funny, Pilger's book has burned a space for you to think. Normal rules don’t apply. Whether you like her or not Pilger’s heroine Ann-Marie wouldn’t care (although she would like men to love her, as she subjugates herself to them with a gung-ho insanity for which she does not feel ashamed, because aren’t we all supposed to be living in a post-shame, post-post-feminist age?). Allegedly broken-hearted after the end of a relationship with a boy called Sebastian, Ann-Marie, an adept fantasist immersed in her vivid reality, meets writer and Second Wave feminist Stephanie Haight (pronounced Hate). Led by Haight, Ann-Marie undertakes her own initiation into what feminism might mean and how it can be lived.

She rockets through a London peppered with on-trend, dreadful squat parties; drunken Islington dinners held by other people’s parents; hideous rabbit-fucking restaurants; late-night hotel rooms; greasy cafes and innumerable girls and boys and men and women wading through a miasma of their own self-loathing and unreliable intelligence. She is a girl of hard extremes, and though she’s enjoyable as an exploration and fantasy, with an admirable strength, I kept wishing someone would make her a nice cup of tea and wrap her in a blanket. A Quixote with no Panza, Ann-Marie possesses nothing but her desire to survive. ‘It’s a lark!’ says one try-hard hipster, but that only made me sad.

Stephanie Haight is as much of a screwball as her protégé, maybe even more so, given her extra thirty years of practice. Satire has enlarged her, but she remains a woman of intelligence, imagination and violence – and is defined by a yearning to be free, whilst not realising (as Ann-Marie seems to) that she needs constraints in order to articulate that freedom. She asks Ann-Marie if she’s read Fifty Shades of Grey. Ann-Marie, says yes, but only because it was lying around at work:

‘I would never have read it otherwise.’
‘Did you like it?’
‘No?’ I watched her face to see if this was the right answer.

Stephanie describes the book as ‘pure toxic poison,’ and thus her battle-line is drawn. Making directionless Ann-Marie her project, it turns out Stephanie needs to work a bit more on herself. Stephanie’s intentions are in the right place, but pursuing them is impossible in a society whose structure, after all these years, is getting stiffer. It is a world where literary judges still use the old refrain: Haight’s lifetime work of activism and writing is described as ‘women’s letters.’

There are excellent set pieces where Pilger drives the satire hard – the abominable ‘neo-burlesque social innovation start-up’ where a gap-year girl-ninny states ‘It’s not like stripping. It celebrates a woman’s curves even if she’s got no curves.’ Ann-Marie tells the female organiser (Obediently? Ironically? Perhaps in this post-meaning world, Ann-Marie by this point doesn’t know?) that her greatest ambition is to be a stripper, but is told that ‘sarcasm is out’ and she should focus more on sultriness. The auditioning girls are whipped up into a frenzy by the female organizer who barks, ‘Who has felt inhibited 110 per cent in the past?...Wicked!! I wanna hear you say: Sparkle.’ The camera zooms in on two men’s naked crotches, the responses of which blazon on screen as the girls duly shine, transparent as glass. The men go hard but alas, they also break out into a rash. Everyone’s lost something, thinking that they’ve gained.

Her work shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize dinner, Stephanie is announced as the outright winner. Despite her triumph, Stephanie remains adamant that she has lost and that her ex-lover, another nominee, has in fact won. Pilger’s characters, and their bonkers perversions, are maybe not quite so bonkers; now and then they reveal far more sensitive truths. For Stephanie explains her illogical conviction: ‘the voice telling you you’re shit is a self-fulfilling prophecy … That thing inside of me will never go away.’

The dinner itself is another set-piece treat. Literary pseuds experience ‘the joy of being a liberal.’ A book dedicated solely to the Elizabethan use of ceruse is discussed:

‘His insights on red and how it is not what we think it is and Elizabethan purity more generally were really startling.’
‘Startling how?’
‘They were just really startling to me.’

Clubbism, egotism and puffery get skewered in this book and it feels good. In fact, when turning the spotlight on the less extreme actions of her characters (excrement-smearing, date-assaulting, little-boy-kicking, wine-bottle smashing, self-suffocating, glass-lacerating) and more on their foibles and sadnesses, Pilger is at her best. Here is the description of the undergraduates at Ann-Marie’s former Cambridge college:

Girls who looked stricken, traumatised, raped, weird, mad, old before their time, drifted past. Girls who had given up on men by the age of eighteen. Girls with death in their eyes. Girls with bunches at the age of eighteen. They were not ironic bunches; they were just bunches. The place reeked of arrested development and chronic perfectionism.

There is always humour in this book, but I sometimes felt there was a tenderness that wanted to emerge, too. Or else that was just me, battered by the nihilism, craving a moment of sentimentality, to be happily manipulated, to be promised a fairytale ending. In short, I started to want a rom-com. Take from that what you will.

Ann-Marie, on the other hand, often thinks about killing – herself, other people. Eat My Heart Out is a picaresque, consequence-free, breakneck romp. Turning up late for things gets you a £5000 cheque. Does Ann-Marie really bank it in an ISA, as she claims, or is this just another in a litany of lies? Pilger seems uninterested in her morals. Everyone’s playing at fantasy in this book – Stephanie Haight betrays herself with at least two very different versions of her childhood and education, and the lascivious old widower so enraptured with the jouissance of a French girl called Camille (really Ann-Marie), turns out to live with his nice wife in a retirement village in North Greenwich.

Zoe Pilger’s first novel lays waste to all pretensions, and any attempts by others to impose their will. Ann-Marie can be monstrous, and other monstrous people tell her so, and thus the circle continues. Pilger sends Ann-Marie and her acquaintances up so hard that they can probably feel her fountain pen pushing the top of their skulls. The book is at times incredibly funny - the man who burned his face answering the iron thinking it was the phone, because he couldn’t multitask? - but it always resists interpretation. The main drive of the book, Stephanie’s attempt to open Ann-Marie’s eyes to the tyrannies and glories of being a woman, is presented as a failure. Dogma, however much it has achieved, cannot win.

The theory that the grand old feminist uses as a garland has turned into an albatross. Stephanie, ruined by love, thus ruins in her turn, and can write no better treatise on the state of womanhood than Ann-Marie’s Beyoncé-loving, education-sapping current blank page of Third Wave feminism. But it is Ann-Marie, discussing her ex-boyfriend, who articulates the most general cry of womankind down the ages:

‘You lost him because you wanted to be like him. To be better than him.’
‘I wanted to be equal to him,’ I shouted.
‘You wanted to be the same as him.’
‘No!’ I shouted. ‘Equal!’

All theories are a bit duff, because they are so hard to live in real life. We are so fractured these days, so intersected, so individual, that we disappear into ourselves thinking we are all together. But at least the call for equality still stands, and Pilger’s heroine calls for it.

There is love in the book (whatever that means – in this instance, perhaps it’s something like a durable companionship) – but it belongs to another generation. Ann-Marie’s mother is not Stephanie Haight – she seems to have ‘fallen’ for someone rather decent, though her daughter barely realises this happiness for what it is. Regardless, Mrs Ann-Marie is described as looking better than she has in years, and I was relieved to discover her within these pages, not because of the love of a man (or loving a man) has improved her looks, but because she represents the better part of muddled mating. When you’ve got prize-winners like Stephanie Haight convinced that they’ve lost, and girls running crazy for boys who’ve done nothing to deserve it, it’s almost like Pilger knows a reader’s got to cling to something.
Jessie Burton studied at Oxford University and the Central School of Speech and Drama. Her first novel, The Miniaturist, is to be published in July 2014 by Picador.