It's time for another edition of 'Shelf Pleasuring', in which we revisit the sexiest books we stole off our parents' shelves. Today, Fine Lines proprietrix Lizzie Skurnick writes about 'Kinflicks', Lisa Alther's 1976 spine-teaser.
My family has always been into death. My father, the Major, used to insist on having an ice pick next to his placemat at meals so that he could perform an emergency tracheotomy when one of us strangled on a piece of meat. Even now, by running my index fingers along my collarbones to the indentation where the bones join, I can locate the optimal site for a trachial puncture with the same deftness as a junky a vein.
I am not surprised if you have not heard of Kinflicks. No one I know has heard of Kinflicks. In fact, I think it is entirely likely that 48.2% of sales of Kinflicks in the U.S. are due entirely to my skulking around used bookstores, snatching copies to give to my friends who then read it and don't understand how this horrible travesty could have occurred, them at one time having not heard of Kinflicks.
But why I have heard of Kinflicks, and why possibly all but .03% of you have not, is that I am a sucker for a certain kind of late-70s-to-early-80s narrative that has nothing to do with the floral wreath Molly Ringwald sports when Jake picks her up in his Trans Am in Pretty in Pink and everything to do with the boots Meryl Streep wears while waving goodbye to her son in Kramer versus Kramer. It's an obsession that led me not only to heavy hitters like Nora Ephron (have you read Crazy Salad? Do) and Erica Jong, but to all the works of Rona Jaffe (especially Class Reunion), books like Marilyn French's The Women's Room or Sara Davidson's Loose Change, Alix Kate Shulman's Memoirs of An Ex-Prom Queen, Larry McMurtry's Moving On, Judy Blume's Wifey, everything, everything, everything by Marge Piercy (I'll take Braided Lives in a pinch) and, of course, all the works from (in my view) the most unjustly unsung author of them all: Lisa Alther.
There's nothing wrong with chick lit (I can often be found reading it) but what I miss when I compare our current mid-list women's fiction compared to this mighty school is scope. Your average chick lit novel manages to cram one or two romances, a few good friends and a day job into some year or two of a story. (One parent or sibling if you're lucky.) But the novels of this period were wont, with Balzacian zest, to take heroines from childhood straight through to a third marriage, with a hefty dose of cheerleading, college, reactionary politicking, dutiful housewifery, conflicted mothering, and adulterous stabs at independence in between. Where the era led, the heroine followed haplessly, gaining little return on the investments in any one identity. So-of course the authors could not limit themselves to one story. If they did-which iteratation of their heroine would they choose?
Kinflick's Ginny Babcock is the ne plus ultra of such shapeshifters, containing, as her college mentor amusedly sniffs, a kind of "protective coloration" that allows her to take on the role required by any group of circumstances. A southern belle, the daughter of a munitions supplier and a genteel SAHW, she rebels first at her upbringing by turning, as a pre-pubescent, to football, then, when she gets her period ("So unprepared was I for this deluge that I assumed I had dislodged some vital organ during football practice the previous afternoon") becomes a flag girl, in service of which she catches the attention of Joe Bob Sparks, the beefy high school football heartthrob.
After a period of madras shirtwaists and class rings, she becomes the paramour of thug Clem Cloyd, drinking rotgut in pencil skirts with a bouffant and eye makeup, until a motorcycle crash gets her sent to the Wellesley-esque Worthley, where she becomes the acolyte of the tweedy Miss Head, discoursing equally dispassionately on Spinoza and cell division. (Keep up! We're not even close!) There, she meets Eddie, a handsome lesbian who strums Dylan in cafes and preaches Power to the People, with whom she winds up first in inner-city Boston, then on a poorly tended commune in Stark's Bog, Vermont, running a family planning clinic while being menaced by snowmobile-driving locals. (Almost done.)
When a tragic accident leads to her being married to one such local, she finds herself thrilled to have a less volatile proscribed role of simply cooking and cleaning ("In short, my married lot was harsh and tediously predictable. I loved it"), then meets a Vietnam deserter, Hawk, whose behavior leads to her getting kicked out of her house at gunpoint and estranged, forever, from her baby daughter, Wendy. As the novel closes, we see her clearing out of her parent's old cabin in a Sisterhood is Powerful T-shirt, a suicide attempt having degenerated "like most of her undertakings...into burlesque" to go, as the author puts it, "where she had no idea."
I've now slotted this as a Shelf Pleasuring, though, as always, on most of my rereads, I realize now that the sex in this novel is the Urkel of tropes, deliberately minor, built for comic relief. (I note the scene in which she loses her virginity in the darkness of her parent's bomb shelter, watching, like St. Theresa, as a lime-green condom descends like a "phosphorescent vision...the size and shape of a small salami" as a prime example.) Ginny in bed, as in life, tends to be divorced from the surroundings though amiably game, ready to jerk a Joe Bob Sparks off into the darkroom sink ("I had hoped to be swept away at a time like this beyond all possible rational objections. It wasn't happening") or hang suspended in her new husband's living room on his quest to make her orgasm ("I don't care what you want. I want you to be happy") with the same morbid forbearance, knowing her half-hearted embrace at controlling her own destiny has likely passed on to her vulva as well.
In Kinflicks, the search for the orgasm is less a holy grail than yet another humiliation visited on a body that is a constant repository for others' desires. Watching her ex-boyfriend's new wife adjust her fake eyelashes and fake breasts in the mirror, Ginny wonders, "What part of her body could she call her own?" Yet she's equally disgusted watching a fellow commune member lick the tears off another woman screaming about her boyfriend in a "Women & Rage" encounter group.
In fact, she's assaulted by the degradation of the human body wherever she looks: her father's missing finger (machine-meets-wedding-ring incident), Clem's destroyed leg (tractor incident), Eddie's missing head (snowmobile incident), a fellow commune members electrocution (vibrator incident), and, worse, her mother's slow death from a blood clotting disorder that leaves her covered with bruises and in a state of constant internal bleeding. What part of any of our bodies can we call our own? she might as well ask. In this novel, the relative inability of the male organ to to have any effect on her at all seems like it might be almost a relief.
Alther constructs the novel in alternating chapters, a first-person Ginny taking us from high school to the present (see above), while the third-person Ginny suffers a visit home to watch her mother die, awash in the detritus of her mainly ignominious past. There's probably no positive way to read that choice: we go through our life convinced we're telling the story, until circumstances force us to admit we've either botched the job or never had it in the first place. And yet, is Ginny any better or worse off than her mother, who grimly observes on her hospital bed that "Her development hadn't mattered since she was a junior at Bryn Mawr"?
Tough to say. Tough to say! Don't ask me! I like chick lit! But, while a complicated relationship with feminism today is often found in the relatively stable form of an online conversation, today, it's nice to know you could once get it with some laughs and lime-green condom, too. More lime-green condom! I'm begging you! Thanks.
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Fine Lines will return next week! In the meantime, I TALKED about you ladies on C-Span's Book TV when I was discussing Shelf Discovery, a book you should all buy and/or friend on Facebook! I did! Click here to watch. And because it's Shelf Pleasuring, here's where I talk about erections, because of COURSE my first time on TV, that's what I talk about... erections.