Feminism ain’t what it used to be. If we didn’t know that before, we’ve known it since Jan. 21, when millions of American women, men, children and genderqueer others put on their pink pussyhats and took to the streets, chanting slogans that might have made Betty Friedan blush: “Viva la vulva!”“Pussy grabs back!”
“It’s like Mardi Gras, but for our vaginas,” Jami Attenberg tweeted about the Women’s March. Like her tweets and the fourth-wave feminism of which she’s a proud proponent, Attenberg’s works of fiction raise the voices of feisty female protagonists.
“All Grown Up,” Attenberg’s latest book, is an inventive, funny, fragmented clutter. Billed as a novel, it reads more like a linked story collection, with plots, timelines and characters that swerve and fold into each other. At its best, this form makes an effective container for a life that’s painfully disorganized. At its not-so-best, it creates redundancies that annoy rather than illuminate.
The book’s protagonist is a 39-year-old, relentlessly single, mildly insufferable, far-from-grown-up Andrea Bern. Daughter of an activist mother and drug-overdosed father, Andrea narrates her post-patriarchal trek through the white-people problems of her waning 30s.
“Brooklyn apartment in a changing neighborhood,” Andrea introduces herself, “why move when the rent is so cheap? Mediocre but well-paying job. . . . You also drink plenty and for a long time use, too, coke and ecstasy mainly. . . . There are men also, in your bed, foggily, but you are less interested in them than in muffling the voice in your head that says you are doing absolutely nothing with your life.”
A stalled-out protagonist can grow tedious. But Attenberg’s gift for reducing her generation to its lowest common cultural denominator, then drawing social insights from the roux, imbues Andrea’s travails with meaning. “Other people you know,” Andrea reflects, “have no problem at all with succeeding at their careers and buying apartments and moving to other cities and falling in love and getting married and hyphenating their names and adopting rescue cats and, finally, having children.”
But Andrea has a problem with all of it. Her passion is painting, but she works as an advertising designer. She’s intentionally child-free and intolerant of those who choose otherwise. She gets drunk and hooks up with losers, then scornfully envies her married friends. One of the book’s funniest scenes depicts Andrea’s visit to Indigo, her once-bestie, now a new mother. The reader knows what Indigo doesn’t: Motherhood is a friendship dealbreaker for Andrea. When Indigo hands over her baby for praise, Andrea thinks, “I would rather have a glass of wine.”
Andrea’s faux-tragic existence is temporarily interrupted by an actual tragedy: Her brother David and sister-in-law Greta’s newborn daughter is terminally ill. Initially, Andrea impersonates a better aunt and sister than she is, but the family’s move to New Hampshire gives her the out she needs. “Greta grabbed my hands. ‘Promise you’ll come and see her,’ she said. I promised. Then I got on the train to Boston. That was two years ago.”
If HBO’s “Girls” is a time capsule of Lena Dunham’s millennials, “All Grown Up” is an X-ray of Gen X. Like those “Girls,” Andrea and her friends are young women for whom the whole world has opened. They’ve grown up believing they’re the captains of their careers, their sexuality, their lives. Yet they find themselves floundering, dulled by alcohol and irony, drowning in a sea of seemingly limitless choices, lurching toward decision-making in overthought fits and starts. What, “All Grown Up” asks, hath feminism wrought?
It’s hard to love a book whose protagonist is as unlovable as Andrea. And yet “All Grown Up” is a smart, addictive, hilarious and relevant novel. This paradox is a credit to Attenberg’s wit and scathing social observations, which offer up an affectionate, insightful portrait of her tribe.
“I’m crying on this airplane right now for the future of American students and I don’t even LIKE children,” Attenberg tweeted when President Trump’s pick for education secretary was confirmed. With her irreverently relevant tweets and her fashionably shod feet planted firmly on terra hipstah, Attenberg is not your mother’s feminist. Her dispatches from inside Gen X are as necessary as they are hilarious.
Meredith Maran’s latest book, “The New Old Me,” was published by Blue Rider on Tuesday.
By Jami Attenberg
HMH. 197 pp. $25