THE ANXIETY OF EVERYDAY OBJECTS
By Aurelie Sheehan
Penguin. 278 pp. Paperback, $14
"All good secretaries will eventually find truth in the hearts of men." So begins Aurelie Sheehan's first novel. Not love, but truth. There's a difference, and in such subtle shadings lie the considerable pleasures of The Anxiety of Everyday Objects, a book distinguished from its peers -- as its hero, Winona Bartlett, is distinguished from hers -- by a fragile but persistent joy.
Yes, she works in a sort of storeroom as a secretary -- the secretary -- for Grecko Mauster Crill, a law firm with offices on the 58th floor of the Chrysler Building. And yes, Umar Crill is a frightful letch, while Bill Mauster is "shaped like a hill in a bog." Yes, the firm's survival hangs by a thread from the Lisa Box, a ghastly but highly plausible beauty kiosk. This coffin-like device -- first installed at Miami International Airport -- takes $100 and 30 minutes to assess the women who step inside. Coupons for breast augmentation and tummy tucks are dispensed. Profits were admirable, until one of the founders split with the other and set up a competing chain of beauty pods named Stratosphere. This resulted in a loss of profits and the lawsuit, which Grecko Mauster Crill had to win.
Winona is eloquently aware of the indignity of her position. "Typing for others is like having a silent woodpecker drilling a hole into your forehead. You are [someone] who has many of your own private thoughts about the ways of the world."
At 29, she's "pretty pretty. She didn't stand out as a bombshell -- maybe a Miss Moneypenny." Winona has plans to become a filmmaker; she even has a title for her first: "The Anxiety of Everyday Objects." In the meantime, she likes to serve the coffee. "The weekend had been filled with the chaos of loneliness: transplanting a geranium, not going to the block party, avoiding close encounters with Jeremy the Sincere. Winona walked down the hall and felt a surge of emotion: I belong here. All would be right with the world, if Mr. Mauster liked his coffee this morning."
Not that the bog hill is the only man in her life. Winona's a healthy girl. "Jeremy [the Sincere] had beautiful eyes, but then so did all boyfriends when you were in love with them." There is also an older man in the film business. A series of former boyfriends appear and are not sent away hungry. Coming into and out of focus is the firm's only associate, Rex Willard, whose dark blond hair "waved back from his face as if he were in a wind machine." (While love plays a key part in this highly contemporary novel, chastity plays no part at all. Dread pregnancy -- once the staple of the female coming-of-age -- is no longer even considered.)
Winona's steadfastness is illustrated by her devotion to a cat named Fruit Bat, although much of her not inconsiderable pet-minding talent goes to Sniffles, the schnauzer of her traveling sister, Liz.
The plot is built on a lawsuit, of course. It is a law firm. Will the firm survive? Will the deserving black receptionist be fired? Will Winona find love? Will she make a movie? The story rotates and then spins around Sandy Spires, the gorgeous, blind attorney brought suddenly in at the highest level. That's right, blind. There are warnings: Sandy judges Bartleby of "Bartleby the Scrivener" "a first-class loser." But Winona and Sandy get on, and the blind woman's success reminds the secretary that she had meant to be a filmmaker. "Winona simply created scenes in her head. For instance, while swimming at the YMCA she envisioned an underwater camera that bobbed up and down like a swimmer doing the breaststroke, up, down, up, down, in a slow rhythm, and on each downward bob the camera would gaze at the water-softened word at the end of the lane: SHALLOW. Then in a little flurry of commotion the swimmer-camera would turn around, and bob up, down, up, down, toward the other word: DEEP."
Despite unpaid school loans, she spends $700 of an unexpected $1,000 bonus on a camera. (The remaining $300 is squandered on clothes.) Thus equipped, she takes pictures that perhaps she shouldn't take. These uncover betrayals, which lead to more betrayal. All of which leads to a more complete, less frivolous understanding of the business of business in Winona's life. There's truth here and many delicate pleasures. *
Benjamin Cheever's new novel, "The Good Nanny," is forthcoming in July.